First and 10: Georgia can't win the SEC with Stetson Bennett. What now?
1. I don’t want to get on a soapbox, but …
He was a fun, walk-on-to-riches quarterback story while wading around the kiddie pool. Then he was thrown in the deep end, and reality arrived.
Georgia can’t win the SEC with Stetson Bennett.
“My goodness, that was ugly,” an SEC defensive coordinator told me Sunday. “There’s only so much he can do. Once Alabama figured it out, the game got out of hand.”
Now Georgia is staring at wasting a rare, championship defense because it can’t get consistent production from the most important position on the field.
“He’s a work in progress, just like our team is,” Georgia coach Kirby Smart said of Bennett, his former walk-on quarterback who inherited the starting job after a convergence of events left the Bulldogs with no choice.
Wake Forest transfer Jamie Newman opted out in the middle of fall camp. USC transfer JT Daniels still is recovering from knee surgery in September 2019, and had a setback a few months later. Redshirt freshman D’Wan Mathis began the season as the starter, but the moment was too big for him. That left Stetson Bennett, the guy who began fall camp 4th on the depth chart.
By the end of the Alabama game, it was clear why he had no hope of playing time had a series of unforeseen events led to it.
If every game were against Arkansas or dysfunctional Auburn or one-dimensional Tennessee, Bennett is your quarterback and the objective is game management. Just don’t screw up.
But the heavy lifting still to come on the Georgia schedule looks more formidable after Alabama exposed Bennett for his (take your pick) inability to drive intermediate and deep throws, short stature (balls knocked down at the line of scrimmage) and penchant to freelance and take chances when he should play for another down.
Alabama sat on short routes and forced Bennett to make difficult, accurate intermediate and deep throws with average arm strength. The Tide defensive line jumped and raised arms to block passing lanes. They got enough of a push up front that Bennett left the pocket to extend plays, and wasn’t nearly as accurate on the run.
Prior to the Alabama game, Bennett completed 63% of his passes, with 5 TDs and 0 INT. Against Alabama, he completed 45% with 2 TDs and 3 INTs.
“He was reckless out there in the second half,” one NFL scout told me. “If I’m a coach, I can deal with a lot of things from my quarterback. Last on that list is reckless with the ball.”
So after a week off, here comes Kentucky and its underrated defense. Florida and its point a minute offense are on the horizon, too. Even South Carolina, which beat Georgia last season, is a tough out when your quarterback is playing recklessly with the ball.
And we haven’t even mentioned another potential date with Alabama in the SEC Championship Game. The Tide – which doesn’t exactly have the most intimidating defense (see: Ole Miss) – gave the rest of the SEC the game plan to Bennett and the Georgia offense.
The big question: How does Georgia adjust?
It begins with giving Mathis another opportunity. If Mathis was good enough to win the job in fall camp, he’s certainly worthy of another chance to lead the offense after getting benched because of one poor half in the season opener against Arkansas (which clearly has a much better defense than anyone expected).
Mathis gives the offense the size (6-6, 205) and arm strength to do things in the passing game that Bennett cannot (stretch the defense with intermediate and deep throws), and forces defenses to account for his ability to run the ball. While he won’t get throws knocked down at the line of scrimmage, the tradeoff for all of those positives is the one glaring negative: next to no experience as a starter.
Then there’s USC transfer JT Daniels, the former 5-star recruit who still isn’t completely healthy from an ACL injury in September 2019. Although he has been medically cleared to play and is the most physically gifted of all the quarterbacks, he has missed significant practice repetitions and his knowledge of new offensive coordinator Todd Monken’s offense isn’t at the same level as Bennett and Mathis.
After the 17-point loss last weekend to Alabama, Smart made it clear Georgia was moving forward with Bennett, saying, “When the level of competition changes, you don’t change your evaluation. You have to grow and get better.”
That comment shocked one SEC coach I spoke to Sunday: “We’ve always believed that all things being equal, we have to do a better job coaching our guys. But watching that game, all things were not equal. You change your evaluation when you can’t compete to the level of competition change.”
When asked why Smart would make such a statement, the SEC coach said, “My guess is the guys behind (Bennett) haven’t shown anything in practice to make a change. In that case, you want to make sure (Bennett) knows he has your full confidence.”
That leaves Georgia back where it was at the end of the Alabama game, a team with an elite defense and running game trying to figure out a way to be proficient in the passing game. The Bulldogs have 3 weeks before a game with rival Florida, which has the skill on offense to press the Georgia defense.
Georgia held on defensively as long as it could against Alabama, before Bennett’s mistakes (again, against what looks like an average Alabama defense) gave the Tide offense short fields to score. Give Florida short fields to score, and the results will be similar.
And Georgia won’t get a second chance at Alabama in the SEC Championship Game.
2. The definition of bad
Georgia isn’t the only SEC team with seasons of hope suddenly stalled by unexpected problems at quarterback.
At one point during Saturday’s noon games, Bo Nix and Jarrett Guarantano were battling to see who could make worse decisions at Auburn and Tennessee, respectively. It was a horrific draw.
And by draw, I mean heaven help Auburn and Tennessee moving forward. Nix was fighting with teammates on the sideline, and Guarantano was benched for a series while his backup (J.T. Shrout) threw an interception on his only throw – after Guarantano threw back-to-back pick-6s.
How did we get here, you ask? Player management (and development) is always at the head of the line, but there are numerous reasons two of the SEC’s most promising teams can’t get out of their own way.
Auburn coach Gus Malzahn made the decision last year to start Nix, a true freshman, over Joey Gatewood, a redshirt freshman who seemingly fit his system better and had more experience in the offense. Gatewood left late in the season (he’s now at Kentucky), giving Auburn with no realistic threat behind Nix.
If senior Grant Loy, a transfer from Bowling Green and Nix’s backup, is playing SEC minutes, the Tigers are in deep trouble.
“Progressed? He has regressed from last year,” an NFL scout told me. “It looks like he has the weight of a program on his shoulders, and he’s trying to win the game every play. His mechanics are terrible. I’ve never seen a guy throw across his body more than (Nix). Everything is ‘make a play’ and off schedule. He’s constantly escaping and not finishing progressions. The protection is spotty, and he’s jumpy and he doesn’t trust anything.”
Meanwhile, there is the curious case of Guarantano: 6 turnovers (3 INTs, 3 fumbles) in the past 2 games, and Tennessee now has begun an SEC losing streak (2 games) after winning 6 straight in league play dating to 2019.
Guarantano was never an elite quarterback in the league, but he had become a solid game manager through Tennessee’s 8-game winning streak. His issues are similar to Nix’s: Tennessee doesn’t have anything behind him (yet) to push him to get better.
Brian Maurer, who played well in spots last season, missed extended time in fall camp dealing with an injury and COVID and hasn’t played a snap. That left Shrout, whose only throw this season was intercepted, and 4-star freshman Harrison Bailey, the future at the position.
Because of the offseason restrictions, Bailey’s development isn’t what it should be. He threw his first 4 passes of the season in mop-up during the Kentucky loss.
Translation: Auburn and Tennessee are sticking with Nix and Guarantano – at least for the immediate future.
3. The most important position, The Epilogue
It could be worse for Georgia, Auburn and Tennessee. It could be what Mike Leach is dealing with at Mississippi State.
After KJ Costello set SEC records in his first game as a starter for MSU, he has 1 TD and 8 INTs in his last 3 games. He threw for 99 yards in last weekend’s loss to Texas A&M, before getting pulled for Will Rogers after his fumble was returned for a defensive touchdown.
Rogers signed with MSU last December when Joe Moorhead was still coach and stayed after Moorhead’s firing and Leach’s hiring. He was smart and wasn’t careless with the ball against the Aggies, and will compete with Costello moving forward.
A month into this strangest of seasons, this is where we are in the SEC at the quarterback position:
- The Heisman Trophy contenders (Mac Jones, Kyle Trask)
- Big numbers on losing teams (Matt Corral, Myles Brennan)
- Everyone else.
4. Fear of the unknown
By the end of the season, Florida will look back at game week for Texas A&M as the moment everything changed for a team with huge expectations in 2020.
The team that coach Dan Mullen believed could win every game this season will either get mentally stronger after the SEC’s first significant case of COVID spread or buckle under the weight of it.
Florida officials said a few players felt symptomatic the Friday before the Texas A&M game in College Station but failed to notify team officials. Within 2 days, the spread was moving and eventually led to more than 20 positive tests for players and team personnel – including Mullen.
“This is the biggest issue we all face – the human condition,” says South Carolina coach Will Muschamp. “Guys have to take care of themselves, follow protocols, stay away from potential problems and then report if you have symptoms. You’re dealing with young guys in the best shape of their lives, and they’re not thinking anything of a fever or a runny nose.”
Or as another SEC coach told me: “You think that was bad at Florida? Wait and see what happens to a team that is out of the conference race and suddenly doesn’t have anything to play for. All of those protocols designed to keep everyone safe don’t mean a thing to a player who figures it can’t hurt to go to one party because we’re not in the (championship) race anymore. But that affects more than just his team. That affects multiple teams’ schedules if a team can’t play because of the infection.”
5. The Weekly Five
Five picks against the spread (4 SEC available games, one bonus).
- Auburn at Ole Miss (+4.5)
- Alabama (-20) at Tennessee
- Kentucky (-6) at Missouri
- South Carolina (+7) at LSU
- Florida State (+6) at Louisville
Last week: 2-2 (one postponement)
6. Your tape is your résumé
An NFL scout breaks down a draft-eligible SEC player. This week: South Carolina CB Jaycee Horn:
“Everyone is beginning to notice him, right? Shoot, we’ve been on him since he was a freshman. He has played a lot of ball there. Started, what, 25 or so games? I haven’t seen a bad one. Seriously, I haven’t. He’s a long, physical guy who knows the position inside and out. He doesn’t freelance out there. He’s very serious about how he plays, has a tremendous football IQ and you can tell he has been coached well.
“Got good genes, too — his dad (former NFL receiver Joe Horn) was a tough, tough football player. He’s the same type of player. (Jaycee) can run, and he’s so fluid out there. Nothing is mechanical. He’s one of those rare corners who really enjoys run support. He does everything well – at the jam, mirroring, recognition, high-pointing – and he works at it. He’s playing his best ball right now, and I wouldn’t be shocked to see him first off the board (at cornerback).”
7. Powered Up
This week’s SEC Power Poll – and one big thing.
1. Alabama: In the early Saban years, there was one, maybe two, No. 1 receivers on the field at the same time. In the last 3 years, there have been 3 on the field at any time, including DeVonta Smith, Jaylen Waddle and John Metchie this season. That puts a tremendous amount of stress on defenses.
2. Georgia: Please, Dawg fans, stop pining for Jamie Newman. Watch his tape at Wake Forest. He’s not your savior. Your championship quarterback is playing at Ohio State because the UGA offensive staff couldn’t develop him.
3. Florida: The human condition is unbeaten: a handful of players feel COVID symptomatic, don’t tell staff, play in Texas A&M game. Days later, more than 20 players and staff (including coach Dan Mullen) test positive. Long story short: 2 games are postponed and a season of championship hopes is teetering.
4. Texas A&M: The Aggies shouldn’t lose another game this season. Which, of course, means they’ll lose in 2 weeks on Halloween night at home against Arkansas.
5. Kentucky: This is the COVID world: Teams struggle early, find themselves and get hot. After 2 games of ugly to begin the season (35.5 ppg.), the defense (4.5 ppg. in the last 2 games) is again becoming this team’s identity.
6. South Carolina: Can the Gamecocks find that same desperate intensity on the road against another desperate team (LSU) that has had 2 weeks to prepare and get straight?
7. Tennessee: Jeremy Pruitt is falling into the same trap of Will Muschamp: good coaches who can recruit as well as anyone in the SEC – but can’t seem to develop a quarterback.
8. Arkansas: Without a terrible call (that the SEC admitted; the dreaded early whistle), the Hogs would have 3 SEC wins in 4 weeks. Early leader for SEC coach of the year: Sam Pittman.
9. Auburn: These are the moments during a season where the lunacy typically begins at Auburn. And by lunacy, I mean talk of firing coaches (Auburn would owe Gus Malzahn $21.45 million if he is fired after the season). Beat Ole Miss, and stave it off for another week. Lose, and it gets white-hot.
10. Missouri: This is why Mizzou hired Eliah Drinkwitz: He knows quarterbacks/offense. He got QB Connor Bazelak ready to play, and the Tigers are a different offense. The problem: Mizzou can’t stop anyone, and faces a UK offense that can control the tempo and keep the Tigers’ offense off the field.
11. LSU: How’s this for a simplified defensive game plan vs. South Carolina: CB Derek Stingley Jr. on WR Shi Smith, and load up to stop RB Kevin Harris. Can’t be much worse than what we’ve seen for 3 weeks from LSU.
12. Ole Miss: Rebels can’t afford an off game from QB Matt Corral, much less 6 interceptions. Teams will play more and more zone and matchup zone against Corral. He has to figure it out.
13. Mississippi State: The defense has been the one constant in a month of instability. Now it gets 2 weeks to find a way to slow down Alabama’s elite offense.
14. Vanderbilt: Two weeks to prepare for what could be the only potential win (Ole Miss) on the schedule.
8. Ask and you shall receive
Matt: Why has Mark Stoops not left Kentucky? I’ve always wondered why a coach with that much success at a place that doesn’t have a big history of success hasn’t moved on to a better job. Surely he could get a bigger job, maybe even in the SEC?
Frank: I’m going to show you some numbers you may not believe:
— Stoops is in the top 15 of the highest-paid coaches in college football, at $5 million per year. His buyout, should UK desire a coaching change without cause, is nearly $24 million. That’s stability in an unstable profession.
— Stoops is top 15 in all of college football, but 7th in his own conference behind Nick Saban, Ed Orgeron, Jimbo Fisher, Kirby Smart, Gus Malzahn and Dan Mullen. Those are the only SEC jobs that are significantly better than UK. The difference between his job and the remaining 7 is negligible (that’s right, Tennessee).
— Stoops is in his 8th season at UK, and as of last week, just got back to .500 (46-46 record). If the Wildcats beat Georgia this week, he’ll be over. 500 for the first time in his career at UK.
And he makes $5 million a year.
Starting to see why Stoops hangs around the Commonwealth? If he’s coaching any of those aforementioned 6 SEC programs, a missed extra point in a home loss to an inferior team (Ole Miss) is a dagger – a crushing loss that won’t be forgotten in hard(er) times. At UK, a loss like that isn’t healthy, but you’re not running a coach who clearly has proven his worth for a kicker, of all things.
Stoops, with the right job and support, could win big at a bigger school in or out of the SEC. But in such a volatile profession, why not stay where you’re appreciated, paid well and can avoid a pink slip easier than most in a profession where you’re hired to be fired?
9. Numbers: 200
The Ole Miss offense made life miserable for 2 of the 3 elite programs in the SEC, combining for 760 yards passing with 5 TD and 1 INT against Alabama and Florida.
Against Arkansas and defensive coordinator Barry Odom – who clamped down Mississippi State a week earlier — the Rebels threw for 200 yards with 1 TD and 6 INT (2 pick-6s). I’ve said it once, I’ll say it again: Barry Odom, the former Missouri coach, will be a head coach in the SEC again.
10. Quote to note
“I’ve been coaching a long time, 20-something years. I’ve seen more defensive touchdowns against our offense, or the other team’s starting on our 10-yard line, our 8-yard line, 15-yard line, 25-yard line, in the last three years than in all my years of coaching.” – Tennessee coach Jeremy Pruitt.