First and 10: Forget the explanation. Kirby Smart owes Georgia fans an apology
1. I don’t want to get on a soapbox, but …
This Georgia football season, the one with so much hope and so many grand championship designs, will be remembered for 3 plays against Mississippi State.
JT Daniels threw a go-ahead 30-yard touchdown pass in the 4th quarter that was dropped.
Two plays later, he threw another 30-yard touchdown pass. This one was negated by a holding call.
A play later, he threw a 40-yard touchdown pass on 3rd-and-20 — in the face of a heavy rush – and it finally stuck.
There’s one quarterback on the Georgia roster who can make each of those throws. Who has the arm talent to make those throws. Who has the – how can I say this, onions — to make those throws.
And Week 9 was the first time Georgia coach Kirby Smart decided to play him.
Of course, when the idiot media dared to question Smart about what in the wide world of sports he was watching in practice when he made the decision to not play Daniels, Smart responded with a convoluted answer about he has been coaching for more than 20 years and how the entire offensive staff makes the decision about who plays quarterback and who gives Georgia the best chance to win.
If that wasn’t bad enough, Smart decided to explain why we’re idiots and he’s brilliant.
“The men in that room who are making those decisions,” Smart said, “they’ve got a lot of experience doing it.”
Well, let me be blunt: They’re terrible doing it.
Up to this point in his coaching career at his alma mater, Smart’s missteps have all be overshadowed by Georgia’s ability to win big games (with the exception of games vs. Alabama).
— The bizarre game-day acumen, complete with strange calls and poor clock management.
— The hiring of his friend James Coley in 2018 to coach quarterbacks (and co-coordinate the offense), when he needed an experienced teacher and developer of talent (not a like mind) to help him choose between Jake Fromm and Justin Fields.
But when you win the SEC and come within an eyelash of winning it all, when you win a College Football Playoff game and multiple major bowls, when you beat bitter rival Florida 3 straight seasons, it’s easy to call those missteps growing pains instead of what they are: red flags.
Now, for the first time since he returned to Georgia in 2016, there are serious questions about Smart’s handling of the most important position on the field. In this offense-fueled age, there is no more important recruiting and development position than the quarterback spot.
Everything revolves around it. The team, the locker room chemistry, the culture – all the way down to the hiring and firing of the head coach. Miss on a quarterback – or fail to develop a quarterback — and it can cost you your job (see: Will Muschamp, Les Miles, Jim McElwain, Butch Jones, etc.).
Smart missed on Justin Fields. He nearly missed on Daniels.
The story with Fields is so strange because of who Smart is, and the core of his coaching philosophy. Much like his mentor Nick Saban, Smart doesn’t make personnel decisions based on seniority.
He plays the best player, and everyone on the roster (coaches included) realize the program is based on meritocracy. He was infatuated with Fromm and his freshman run in 2017 to the National Championship Game, and that season clouded his judgment with Fields.
Fields is a unique talent, a rare player who comes along every 2 or 3 decades. Fromm was a poor man’s Aaron Murray (who had a great Georgia career). By Fromm’s junior season, it was clear Smart made the wrong decision – and not just because Fields was crushing it at Ohio State.
Fromm had a ceiling, and he reached it in the national title game. He never significantly improved from that freshman season.
Fields was more talented as a thrower and runner, and had a much higher ceiling. But Fromm was thisclose to winning it all, and Smart could taste it. Hence, don’t rock the boat.
But that decision flies in the face of everything Smart believes. Remember, meritocracy.
And that’s what makes the unfolding of this now nightmare of a decision with Daniels – because that’s what it is (more on that later) – so incredibly confounding.
With Daniels, Georgia can beat Alabama and Florida. Without him, they get blown out.
But if we don’t learn from history, we’re bound to repeat it.
Smart got infatuated with former walk-on Stetson Bennett and his gutty, gritty play, and knew he could win with a game manager just like Saban did with John Parker Wilson and Greg McElroy and AJ McCarron.
Yet here’s the problem with that idea: McElroy played in the NFL and McCarron still plays in the NFL. Bennett? Beat bad or average teams, lost to 2 good teams.
Again, let’s go on the assumption that we’re idiots and Smart is brilliant (like I wrote a couple of weeks ago). He and his staff – who he conveniently pulled into the “decision making” of who plays quarterback at the opportune time – were at practice every day and watched D’Wan Mathis, Bennett and Daniels compete for the job.
Every day. Every repetition. Every good throw, every bad throw. Every game management situation.
And still came away with this pecking order: Bennett, Mathis, Daniels.
I know we’re all idiots, OK? I get that. But you’ve got to be kidding me.
Bennett’s arm is average at best, and the offense is limited in what it can do in the passing game with him playing. Mathis has a cannon, yet doesn’t know where it’s going half the time.
It took one throw – one measly throw – for me (again, the idiot in this scenario) to see that Daniels was the best quarterback on the roster.
Late in the first quarter, Daniels rolled right on a bootleg and threw a dart to wideout George Pickens, who had broken off a route and moved toward the out of bounds line in the end zone. Daniels threw Pickens open in the end zone, throwing it down and away where only where Pickens could get it. Touchdown.
Early in the fourth quarter, despite zero help from the Georgia running game, Daniels was doing what he wanted against a solid SEC defense (and a Mississippi State offense that kept pressure on Daniels to make plays).
With the score tied at 24, an NFL scout texted me and said, “(Daniels) could throw a pick-6 and lose the game, and he’s still miles ahead of the other guys on that roster.”
The scout, apparently, is an idiot, too.
2. The mystery behind the man
For weeks there was this nebulous idea that Daniels wasn’t healthy enough to play.
The ACL surgery from an injury in the first game of last season at USC wasn’t an issue, but a subsequent “clean up” surgery in December had slowed his rehab.
Mathis was named starter in Week 1 and was benched at halftime, and Bennett took over from there. Prior to Week 2, Smart said that Daniels had been medically cleared to play, but wasn’t “ready” to play.
That soon became the idea – based on Smart’s comments – that just because you’re medically cleared to play, doesn’t mean you’re ready to play. For the next month, the debate was about “ready.” Did it mean he wasn’t good enough, or was he not medically ready?
Meanwhile, the Georgia offense struggled. It began in an easy win over Tennessee when it was clear Bennett didn’t have the arm strength to beat teams that can cover and pressure.
Then came blowout losses to Alabama and Florida, eliminating those grand championship hopes, and frankly, wasting an elite defense.
Before the Florida game, Smart said Daniels would compete for the job just like he does every week. He chose Bennett instead, and played Mathis after Bennett was injured.
When asked after the game about Daniels and if he was medically ready to play, Smart said he has been ready, and that “he has been down there on the scout team doing a good job for us.”
Before we get into any conspiracy theories, let’s let Daniels clear things up. When asked after the Mississippi State game why he didn’t play earlier, as soon as after the season opener against Arkansas, Daniels said, “It was a coaching decision.”
That’s about as damning as it gets.
Daniels threw for 401 yards and 4 TDS with no INTs against Mississippi State and completed 74% of his passes. Bennett and Mathis have combined to throw 9 TDs and 9 INTs, and completed 53% of their passes.
Daniels averaged 10.6 yards per attempt, and Bennett/Mathis averaged 6.8. There are 3 Power 5 quarterbacks with a better QB rating than Daniels’ 197.1 – the 3 leading Heisman Trophy candidates (Mac Jones, Kyle Trask, Fields).
Mississippi State isn’t an elite defense, but the Bulldogs are among the top half of the SEC in most defensive categories, including No.4 in total defense and No. 6 in scoring defense.
And Week 9 was the first time Smart – wait, the entire offensive staff – decided it was time to play Daniels.
3. Another bad decision, The Epilogue
Look, every coach makes mistakes. Some just refuse to admit it.
Years ago when Bob Stoops was defensive coordinator at Florida, the Gators’ 1997 regular season had just ended and they failed to make the SEC Championship Game for the first time in the early years of the game.
A young safety had played well when pressed into action in an upset of Florida State, and I asked Stoops why the player didn’t play sooner.
“Because we blew it as coaches,” Stoops said.
But you have to recognize you blew it to learn from it. Smart still believes he made the right decision with Fromm and Fields (and from talking to Fields prior to last year’s CFP semifinal, he’s still not happy about it).
That’s probably why it was easy for Smart to stick with Bennett, and when Bennett didn’t work, he went back to Mathis – his original starter in Week 1. It makes no sense because Smart truly is one of the game’s best young coaches.
Only Saban recruits better Smart. No one in college football develops defenses like Smart.
He’s young and charismatic, and players love him. He’s everything Saban is, only 25 years younger. But if he doesn’t fix this fatal flaw, this blind spot at the most important position on the field that he clearly cannot see, he’ll never do the one thing he desperately wants: bring a national title to his alma mater.
Even an idiot can see that.
4. Common deficiencies
Let’s make something very clear: Smart isn’t the only coach who makes blatantly obvious mistakes that only he can’t see.
Another game came and went for Tennessee, and quarterback Jarrett Guarantano threw another pick-6 that derailed any hope of the Vols winning on the road against Auburn.
By the time 4-star freshman Harrison Bailey entered in the 4th quarter, the game was over. He completed 7-of-10 passes for 86 yards and continues to play as well or better than Guarantano over the last 3 weeks.
He’s a freshman playing the toughest position on the field. He will make mistakes. But at this point, with all that has transpired with Guarantano since the Vols began the season 2-0, what’s the harm?
Tennessee has lost 5 straight, and since the second half of the Georgia game in Week 3 (where the Vols led 21-17), the Vols have scored 6 touchdowns and their opponents have scored 5 defensive touchdowns. Three were pick-6s off Guarantano, and another was a fumbled returned for a touchdown.
After the game, Pruitt said Guarantano gives Tennessee the best chance to win (hello, Kirby), and even blamed himself for Tennessee’s problems, adding that Guarantano “didn’t miss two field goals, he didn’t blow a coverage.”
But he did throw his 3rd pick-6 with the game on the line. The Vols haven’t won since the first week of October, and are staring at a potential 8-game losing streak to finish the season.
If you don’t play Bailey this week against Vanderbilt – where the Vols have lost 3 of the last 4 in the series – to give him the experience of starting and finishing a game, you may as well go with Guarantano the rest of the way.
Throwing Bailey in the fire against Florida and/or Texas A&M to finish the season without legitimate snaps as the starter, is a horrifying prospect for a young quarterback.
5. The Weekly Five
Five picks against the spread.
- Kentucky at Florida (-20.5)
- Auburn at Alabama (-23.5)
- LSU at Texas A&M (-14)
- Mississippi State at Ole Miss (-12)
- Tennessee at Vanderbilt (+11)
Last week: 3-1 (1 postponement)
6. Your tape is your résumé
An NFL scout breaks down a draft-eligible SEC player. This week: Alabama LB Dylan Moses.
“Two years ago, he was one of those rare top-10 linebacker picks. A beast. A 240-pound athlete who could run with a nasty streak. The perfect Mike backer. The knee injury changed everything. He’s a different player right now. You watch him play, and he’s still the instinctual guy you saw 2 years ago. He sees things on the field, he just can’t get there like he used to. The twitch isn’t there all the time. The fluidity isn’t, either. There are moments where you’re like, yeah, that’s the guy I know from 2 years ago.
“Some guys take longer to return from an ACL (surgery). A few things will be big for him: a full season of game tape, and then a month of rest for the knee, and then getting in the best shape of his career for the Combine.”
7. Powered Up
This week’s Power Poll – and one big thing.
1. Alabama: Yeah, Mac Jones remembers those turnovers from last year’s Iron Bowl. That’s bad news for Auburn – especially with Jones coming off his worst performance of the season.
2. Florida: The Gators are 7 games into the season, and Gators still are finding young players (LBs Ty’Ron Hopper, Khris Bogle) on defense playing better than starters. That’s good (better production) and bad (see: Kirby Smart).
3. Texas A&M: By the time Aggies take the field in College Station, will be 21 days since they last played. They were hot when the pandemic derailed 2 games; can they return at the same level of play?
4. Georgia: In a perfect world, Daniels plays well, UGA wins out and a handful of key underclassmen ignore the NFL and return for 2021. Then you’ve got a national title favorite.
5. Auburn: Even with a blowout loss in the Iron Bowl (that’s happening, folks), Tigers can still win 7 games in a brutal season – and then get a bowl win, too.
6. Missouri: Tigers will be favored in 3 of their final 4 games, and 6 wins would be a huge first season for Eliah Drinkwitz. MU has its quarterback of the future.
7. LSU: QB TJ Finley played smarter, and with poise and the offense looked solid on the road against a strong Arkansas defense. Can it translate to another road game (Texas A&M) against another stout defense?
8. Arkansas: Feleipe Franks last 4 games: 9 TDs, 1 INT, 1,043 yards, completing 73% of passes. The problem: Hogs have given up 145 points in those games, 3 of which were losses.
9. Ole Miss: All the offense and social media fun and games is eye candy. Time for Lane Kiffin to earn his keep in the Egg Bowl, the most underrated, bitter rivalry in all of college football.
10. Kentucky: UK’s plan was to run the ball and use clock vs. Alabama — and it lost by 60. Same game plan this week vs. a Florida team that hasn’t exactly been stout vs. the run this season (141.7 ypg.).
11. Tennessee: Yet another reason to start Harrison Bailey this week vs. Vanderbilt: The Commodores have an SEC-worst 1 interception this season, are giving up 280 passing yards a game, and opposing quarterbacks have completed 73% of their passes.
12. South Carolina: It’s fun to say the Gamecocks may have found a quarterback in freshman Luke Doty, but that’s a long way down the line. It also, more than likely, won’t help this week vs. Georgia.
13. Mississippi State: Bulldogs can’t play a majority of man coverage against Ole Miss like they did against Georgia. Ole Miss QB Matt Corral might get 500 yards if they do.
14. Vanderbilt: Derek Mason may not be around to enjoy it, but the Commodores have something in freshman QB Ken Seals. Tough player, can make every throw and is accurate. What more can you ask for?
8. Ask and you shall receive
Matt: I’ve just about had enough of Todd Grantham with my Gators. Why is it we never look prepared on defense? Our guys aren’t even set when the ball is snapped! I don’t know if I can take another season of this.
Caron: Grantham is well-respected in the coaching fraternity, both in the NFL and college football. But he’s also a nomad of sorts, and it typically begins to turn in the 3rd or 4th season.
He has had 10 jobs since 1990, his last 4 in college football: 4 years at Georgia, 3 years at Louisville, 1 year at Mississippi State, 3 years at Florida. The last 4 years are with Dan Mullen at Mississippi State and Florida, and Grantham had opportunities in the NFL after last season.
If Grantham is your DC, you take everything that comes with it – including the legendary (and infamous) “Third and Grantham” moniker. Because he loves pressure, 3rd downs under Grantham are the ultimate risk vs. reward.
The Gators have pulled back on exotic pressure and combination coverages on many “Third and Granthams,” but there are still problems. Florida is giving up 43% of 3rd-down conversions, including 7-of-15 (47%) last week to Vanderbilt.
If Florida does move on from Grantham at the end of this season, it will cost $1.8 million (the value of the one season remaining on his contract).
9. Numbers: 60.2 and 32.3
Texas A&M and Tennessee began the season as teams having turned the corner in Year 2 under coaches Jimbo Fisher and Jeremy Pruitt, respectively.
One team (Texas A&M) has CFP hopes; the other (Tennessee) is in danger of losing 8 straight to finish the season.
In this era of all-offense all the time, here’s a critical reason: The Aggies are converting 60.2% on 3rd down (best in the SEC), and the Vols are converting nearly half that (32.3, last in the SEC).
10. Quote to note
Alabama coach Nick Saban, on Kentucky possessing the ball to play keep away: “The last time I checked, you get nothing for time of possession.”