1. I don’t want to get on a soapbox, but …

It’s March, and already Kirby Smart can’t avoid it.

Georgia is loaded. After near misses in nearly every season since Smart returned to his alma mater, this might just be the year the Dawgs break through and win the whole damn thing.

“The more that the mantra or message out there is you’re going to be great,” Smart says, “the tougher our job becomes internally to motivate.”

Forget that coachspeak. While it might be legitimate, it’s also impossible to deny that Georgia is on the verge of something great.

That’s what makes this spring, and the 15 practices that typically are reserved for developing young players, so important for everyone on an uber-talented roster. Everything is set up for a magical run, for this Georgia team to bring home its first national championship since 1980.

Smart doesn’t want to hear it. He wants to talk about the process of becoming a great team, and the hard work it takes and the commitment that comes with it – and everything you’d expect him to say.

You get what you put into it, he says. It’s a simple formula. And he’s exactly right – only he’s avoiding the critical denominator: the quarterback.

After three seasons of not enough, Georgia has a player that can deliver in the age of pass-happy football. Fourth-year junior JT Daniels, once a can’t-miss recruit in a class that included another 5-star guy you’ve heard of (Justin Fields, more on that later), is healthy and the clear No.1.

No more trying to play an overmatched try-hard guy (Stetson Bennett), no more forcing a dual-threat guy because he’s a dual-threat (D’Wan Mathis). Smart has a true thrower, a quarterback who fits the offense and who can do things in the pass game that previous quarterbacks at Georgia under Smart couldn’t.

Daniels is surrounded by elite skill players (it’s an NFL money year for WR George Pickens; watch how he breaks out), and there’s genuine intent to do things differently on offense.

The defense will be nasty again, and despite having to rebuild the secondary, Georgia will have one of the top three talented teams in the nation when it opens the 2021 season against Clemson. And that’s been the plan all along.

When you recruit better than anyone other than Alabama and maybe Ohio State, you expect to have the players who can win a national championship. You expect to be secure in replacing starters with 4- and 5-star players who have waited their turn to play.

Just like Smart’s mentor, Nick Saban, does year after year.

“I realize the standard of excellence that’s been created here, and the expectation,” Smart said. “We never shy away from (championships) being our goal. But it’s not something we have to talk about every day.”

There’s a formula for this type of program, one that recruits among the top three or four programs in the nation, and one that has a driven coaching staff. You get close, then you get over the top with a couple of impact players.

Georgia got close in 2017, and but for a coverage bust in the secondary on 2nd-and-26, might have won the national title. The plan stopped the following year at the critical point in the season because Jake Fromm had hit his ceiling in 2017.

Fromm had a fine 2018 season – heck, he had a very good Georgia career – but he never became elite. He never became, in the booming age of the passing game, the quarterback who could make every throw and make every defense pay for mistakes like Tua Tagovailoa, Joe Burrow and Trevor Lawrence.

Daniels doesn’t have to have special seasons like those three quarterbacks, but he has to be someone whose throwing ability and football IQ give the Dawgs a distinct advantage – like Mac Jones last season at Alabama.

“I saw him at USC when he was a freshman, and I remember thinking when he gets it, and it begins to slow down for him, he’s going to be one tough SOB,” one NFL scout told me. “Mac Jones in 2019 wasn’t close to the Mac Jones of 2020. He worked to make himself better. If (Daniels) puts in that same work, and the system at Georgia changes to reinforce that work, watch out.”

2. The big change

After a season where even his coaching counterparts in the SEC were wondering what in the world was going on at quarterback for Georgia, there is clarity heading into this season of expectations.

A year ago, this is what the Georgia quarterback room looked like: a new coach and offensive coordinator, a new system, three new quarterbacks (Daniels, Wake Forest transfer Jamie Newman), freshman Carson Beck and two project holdovers (Bennett and Mathis) who had at least been around the program and understood the expectations.

Once fall arrived and Newman opted out because of COVID concerns, the quarterback room became a potential starter (Daniels) rehabbing a serious knee injury, a freshman who wasn’t ready, and Bennett and Mathis.

It took Daniels a month to get medically cleared to play, and by that time, Smart thought he could win with Bennett and didn’t know if Daniels had absorbed enough volume of offense to make a difference.

That’s why Bennett started and flopped against Florida, and why – once again – Smart was criticized for botching a quarterback competition after the loss to Florida essentially ended any hope of winning the SEC and playing in the College Football Playoff.

Compounding the problem: a week later, Daniels started against Mississippi State (which probably had a better defense than Florida), and was nearly flawless.

Was the criticism fair? Absolutely. We’ll never know what Georgia could have done against Florida had Daniels started (the Gators had 38 points at halftime), but the way Daniels played the following week made it clear Georgia had a winner.

Daniels’ elite arm strength and football IQ give Georgia its first real threat at the position since 2018, when Fields spent a season backing up Fromm – the quarterback who was a play away from winning a national title, but in the end, did more to stagnate the program.

How, you ask, can a great teammate and winner stagnate a program? Because Smart was so obsessed by Fromm’s ability to lead the Dawgs to the national title game as a freshman, he didn’t stick to his steadfast rule of “best player plays” — and continued to force Fromm into the lineup despite the rare talent he had in Fields.

Look, you don’t go from sitting on the bench and not having a “grasp” of what Georgia wanted to do on offense, to nine months later beginning your second season at another program and eventually throwing 41 TDs against 3 INTs at Ohio State, completing 67% of your passes and averaging 9.2 yards per attempt if you can’t “grasp” an offense quickly enough.

Also, it’s not like Jim Chaney’s offenses have ever been mistaken for complex.

Fields didn’t play at Georgia because Smart chose Fromm, who played exceptionally as a freshman – but never grew into an elite player. Georgia blew a 10-point lead the following season in the 2018 SEC Championship Game because the offense struggled in the second half against an Alabama defense that later allowed 44 points in a national title game loss to Clemson.

The opportunity was there, the offense simply didn’t seize the moment. And now here we are, with another opportunity for Smart to seize the moment.

He won’t choose poorly this time.

3. The big change, The Epilogue

How does Daniels get better, and become the difference-maker in the offense?

It may be as simple as timing.

He arrived at Georgia at the same time as new offensive coordinator Todd Monken. The pandemic season impacted everything and was an unavoidable obstacle to Monken installing an offense that was significantly different than what Chaney ran.

Not only was Daniels rehabbing his knee injury, but he was also trying to absorb his third offense in three years (two different coordinators in his freshman and sophomore seasons at USC).

This season, everything is different. He’s the clear No. 1, and he’s running offseason throwing sessions and developing chemistry with the receivers.

He’ll get No. 1 repetitions throughout the spring and in fall camp, and Monken will work with him over nine months in the offseason as the team’s No. 1 quarterback. That one-on-one teaching and development is critical.

That’s how Mac Jones went from game manager in three starts to finish the 2019 season, to the best quarterback not named Trevor Lawrence to finish the 2020 season.

And – as hard as this is to hear – that’s how Fields went from a quarterback who couldn’t grasp a system, to a player who will likely be a top 5 pick in this year’s NFL Draft.

That’s why this offseason is so important for Georgia, why a loaded team is primed to take the big step they’ve missed on the last three seasons.

They have the quarterback now. Everything else falls in line.

4. Saban’s steal

There’s still a buzz around the coaching fraternity after Alabama coach Nick Saban convinced former NFL head coach Bill O’Brien to join his staff as offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach.

O’Brien isn’t a washed-out NFL coach, or a college coach trying to reinvent himself as some of Saban’s coaching projects have been. This is a man who won 4 division titles in 7 seasons with the Houston Texans.

“Bill could’ve been an OC with any number of (NFL) clubs,” an NFL scout told me. “And then a year or two later, he’s back as a head coach with another franchise. Owners in this league don’t pass over guys who have won division titles. When you win division titles and playoff games, that’s a big deal. I’m shocked that he went back to the college game.”

Saban’s close relationship with New England Patriots coach Bill Belichick greased the hire, and it came with an unintended benefit: Alabama needed an offensive line coach, and O’Brien brought his best friend and former Jacksonville Jaguars head coach Doug Marrone, with him to coach the Tide offensive line.

Two guys who coached NFL clubs in 2020, two new assistants for Saban at Alabama.

“Nick is at the top of his game right now,” another NFL scout told me. “I truly believe he’s the most successful and respected coach in football right now.”

5. The Weekly Five

The top five quarterbacks at Alabama under Nick Saban:

  • 1. AJ McCarron: Two national titles as a starter, another as a backup. 36-4 record as a starter, TD/INT ratio of 64-15.
  • 2. Tua Tagovailoa: One national title, greatest pure passer in school history.
  • 3. Jalen Hurts: One national title (with help from Tua), and the greatest leader at the position under Saban.
  • 4. Mac Jones: One shot as the starter turned into a national championship dream season.
  • 5. Greg McElroy: Forget about “game manager” label. He was deadly in the two games that mattered (Auburn and Florida) in 2009.

6. Your tape is your résumé

An NFL scout breaks down a 2022 draft-eligible prospect. This week: LSU CB Derek Stingley Jr.:

“This is a big year for him. This is where you make your first contract money. He was fantastic as a freshman. Fearless. Fast. Aggressive. Everything you want from a shutdown corner. And then it all changed last year.

“The defense wasn’t the same, and the pass rush definitely wasn’t. And that affected him. He played with hesitation, something I hadn’t seen from him as a freshman. When you hesitate, everything is different. You play stiffer, he did. You’re not as aggressive, and he played off a lot. All of that impacts your technique, and you get sloppy. He got sloppy.

“Now, all that said, I expect him to have a big season. He’s a natural at the position, and that whole team was engulfed by the poor play from the defense. I want to see the old Stingley. The fearless and aggressive Stingley that can run with anyone.”

7. Powered Up

This week’s Power Poll: ranking the SEC’s offensive coordinators.

1. Florida: Dan Mullen: The head coach is the offensive coordinator, play-caller and quarterbacks coach. It’s the one thing, three years into Mullen’s tenure, that has zero problems.

2. Texas A&M: Darrell Dickey: The play-caller is coach Jimbo Fisher, the system is Jimbo Fisher’s. Dickey is the man who runs the room and organizes practice.

3. Bill O’Brien, Alabama: I don’t know how Saban convinced a successful NFL head coach (four division titles with the Texans) to coach his quarterbacks and call plays, but he did. O’Brien will turn Bryce Young into an All-American. Quickly.

4. Georgia, Todd Monken: Handcuffed last year in Year 1 with quarterback uncertainty. That all changes this fall with JT Daniels under center from Day 1.

5. Ole Miss, Jeff Lebby: Some in the coaching fraternity believed he was the leader for the UCF job before Gus Malzahn accepted the position. He’s one more big season with Lane Kiffin from getting a head coaching job.

6. Mississippi State, Mike Leach: Has been his own OC, play-caller and QB coach everywhere he has been. Why change something that works well?

7. Arkansas, Kendal Briles: Did a masterful job in reconstructing Feleipe Franks, and will have a big job this fall with a wide-open quarterback room.

8. Missouri, Eliah Drinkwitz: He got the job (both of his FBS head coaching jobs, actually) because of his offensive mind and work with quarterbacks. Watch how QB Connor Bazelak improves in Year 2.

9. LSU, Jake Peetz: Former LSU pass game coordinator Joe Brady recommended Peetz and D.J. Mangas to LSU coach Ed Orgeron, and Orgeron hired both. Peetz has a strong reputation in the coaching fraternity and will run an RPO-based system like Brady did during LSU’s 2019 national championship season.

10. Auburn, Mike Bobo: A smart SEC-centric hire for new coach Bryan Harsin. Can Bobo find a way to mix his SEC style with Harsin’s unique system and schemes from Boise State?

11. Kentucky, Liam Coen: If this sounds like a broken record, it is: another young OC, a meticulous organizer and play-calling vision.

12. South Carolina, Marcus Satterfield: Has spent a majority of the last decade with Matt Rhule (Temple, Baylor, Carolina Panthers), and has a unique understanding about successful rebuilding projects.

13. Tennessee, Alex Golesh: Has one season of experience as an offensive coordinator (at UCF), but Iowa State coach Matt Campbell raves about his former assistant, who developed into an elite recruiter and was a significant factor in the Cyclones’ growth in the Big 12.

14. Vanderbilt, David Raih: Got his start as an unpaid intern for Rick Neuheisel at UCLA in 2009. Another in a (smartly) growing line of inexperienced play-callers getting their chance because of their depth of knowledge in the pass game.

8. Ask and you shall receive

Matt: There’s no way Florida runs off Dan Mullen. The guy wins, and that’s all college football is about. They put up with you until you don’t win anymore. You’re living in a dream world. Give me a scenario where Mullen gets fired.

Hank Petersen
Charlotte, N.C.

Hank: Mullen winning 29 games in his first 3 seasons (and going to 3 straight New Year’s 6 bowls) is the reason he’s still the Florida coach. Period. If he were averaging 7 or 8 wins a season, we wouldn’t be having this conversation. The question: How much stress did last season cost on both sides?

Mullen has 3 years remaining on his deal, something that has been a sticking point for him. If you’re Florida, you’d like to extend the deal to get him to 4 years just for the optics with recruiting. But do you extend the deal after he put the program on probation, and after multiple mid- and postgame antics he pulled last season?

The NCAA probation has been wildly overlooked because we’ve reached the point in college football where the narrative has changed to paying and/or greater support for players (which I have been advocating for years). But probation is a big deal to the Florida administration, as are the antics that damage the Gators’ brand. If you extend the contract, you’re rewarding that behavior. There’s no other way to look at it.

Maybe it’s as simple as Mullen learning to work within the framework of a mega job, and realizing there’s a time and place to be quirky or get heated. And there’s never a place for cheating, especially when you know you’re breaking a rule — and do it, anyway.

9. Numbers: 6.0 and 5.7

In the pass-happy era of college football, South Carolina has averaged just 6.0 and 5.7 yards per attempt in the last 2 seasons — numbers that placed them among the worst 30 teams in the nation. Compounding the problem: a combined 20-16 TD-INT ratio, and a completion percentage of 58. Welcome to the world of new offensive coordinator Marcus Satterfield, with very little experience in the quarterback room. And that may be a good thing.

10. Quote to note

Florida coach Dan Mullen on new quarterback Emory Jones, and how he’s different from Kyle Trask: “His athleticism, not just talking about quarterback runs, but his athleticism to scramble, extend plays and see things the defense really can’t account for because it’s kind of out of the scheme. That’s a huge plus that he brings to the table.”