First and 10: Is Kirby Smart a genius? Is Dan Mullen SEC's Jim Harbaugh? We're about to find out
1. I don’t want to get on a soapbox, but …
We have to assume Kirby Smart knows what he’s doing and the rest of us are idiots.
If we lay this concept as our foundation, it’s much easier to accept the unwatchable. It’s easier to comprehend why Georgia’s uber-successful coach – who has done everything but win a national championship – insists that undersized and now underperforming Stetson Bennett is his quarterback going into the most important game of the season.
“It’s his team,” Smart said of Bennett.
Georgia vs. Florida has always the one that matters most for both teams. Beating Alabama earlier this month in the “Game of the Year” would have been nice for Georgia – but wouldn’t have meant anything had the Bulldogs lost to Florida.
Not fumbling away a victory at Texas A&M would have been nice for the Gators, but means nothing long-term should Florida beat Georgia.
The winner of this game has one huge obstacle remaining on the road to playing Alabama in the SEC Championship Game with a College Football Playoff spot on the line: navigating COVID.
Florida lost 3 weeks from a COVID outbreak that affected more than 30 players – then came back and played its best game of the season in a rout of a hot Missouri team.
Georgia returned from a forced bye week because Florida’s outbreak forced schedule changes and played its worst game of the season.
Bennett threw 2 (more) interceptions, and Georgia scored 14 points against a Kentucky team that is one-dimensional offensively and struggles to string together positive plays.
This is why, more than anything, I’m hanging on to Kirby Smart knows what he’s doing and we’re idiots.
Because why in the world would Smart, seeing the trendline with Bennett – he’s clearly regressing – and the offensive struggles with him, not at least get snaps for backups D’Wan Mathis and/or JT Daniels in the Kentucky game?
He has known since Bennett’s lousy performance against Tennessee in early October that the quarterback position isn’t working, and then after the ambush in Tuscaloosa, that something is seriously wrong.
Then we reach Kentucky, and Bennett and the passing game (and offense) look like a tow truck in quick drying cement. Bennett had a quarterback rating of 38.9 and threw 2 interceptions (5 in the last 2 games).
Passes continue to get knocked down (against UK, knocked down and tipped into an interception), and the field continues to shorten because Bennett can’t drive the ball with arm velocity to intermediate and deep throws.
Cornerbacks and safeties sit on short routes, and the offense works within a confined space of about 15 yards from the line of scrimmage. The only saving grace is the Georgia run game, which continues to pound away and grind yards — and here’s the key, grind clock — to protect (take your pick) the lead, the defense and Bennett.
But at some point, Georgia will run into a defense that can stop the run, or stop it enough to put the passing game into unmanageable down and distance situations. Once that happens, the experiment that is Bennett becomes the only answer.
We saw when Alabama scored 24 unanswered points what happens when Bennett is the only answer.
“They’re very predictable right now,” an SEC defensive coordinator told me. “If you have the personnel in the back end to go extra in the box and force (Bennett) to make winning throws, you can beat them.”
That’s not rocket science. Any high school DC would use that plan of attack. So why are we here, still debating Bennett and his role in the offense?
Even though Smart says Daniels has been cleared to play, it’s obvious he’s not physically ready to play. If he were, he would’ve – at the very least – played in mop-up to get him on the field, in the jersey, in a game.
Mathis, meanwhile, is the more intriguing question. How does he go from winning the starting job out of fall camp – no matter how or why – to not taking a significant snap after struggling for 2 quarters against a solid Arkansas defense?
How do you file away a quarterback who began the season as your answer? These are all important and legitimate questions, and there might be one overriding answer: Georgia just isn’t good at the position right now.
After 4 years of landing the biggest and best recruits – and watching 5-star prospects Jacob Eason and Justin Fields leave because of Smart’s infatuation with Jake Fromm – the irony of ironies is Georgia is left with a former walk-on, a project (Mathis) and another former 5-star who can’t get on the field because he hasn’t completely healed from knee surgery.
That means Florida, which looked terrible defensively in the first 3 weeks, then lost 3 weeks of preparation time dealing with a COVID outbreak, somehow looks like the team to beat this weekend at Cocktail Party in Jacksonville.
That, or Kirby Smart is brilliant and the rest of us are idiots.
2. If it walks like a duck, and quacks like a duck …
This has to be said, so get ready, Gator fan:
If Florida doesn’t beat Georgia this weekend, the Gators have their own version of Jim Harbaugh on the sidelines.
Looks good, plays the part, wins a lot of games … and doesn’t win the games that matter.
Just substitute Georgia for Ohio State, and away we go.
Don’t think it’s not a fair comparison. Mullen has a better record than Harbaugh against ranked teams and is better overall against his rivals (Georgia, Florida State, Tennessee) than Harbaugh is against his, but Mullen will ultimately be judged (like Harbaugh) on the team standing in front of him in his division – and the CFP race.
Maybe that’s why Mullen got so agitated Saturday night after his quarterback, Kyle Trask, took a cheap shot from Missouri on the last play of the first half. Mullen didn’t see it, but was told about it – and rushed to midfield to join what had already developed into a mini-brawl.
He didn’t start it, but he sure didn’t do anything to discourage it. Why, you ask? Because his team looked flat, there was no energy on the sideline or in the stands, and something had to be done.
Mullen has always been this type of coach, not afraid to say something or do something to get his team zeroed in on what matters. He tried it prior to last season by gigging Smart and Georgia, and the Gators got closer but couldn’t win.
He did it again this offseason when he proclaimed the expectation is to win every game. He said he won 2 national titles at Florida (while offensive coordinator for Urban Meyer) and he knows what national championship teams look like.
And he did it against Missouri because, after 3 long weeks of isolation, his team needed a spark. He’ll get fined by the SEC, and the Gators had 2 players kicked out of the game (including starting DL Zach Carter) who will miss the first half of the Cocktail Party, but Florida played better in the second half because of it.
Spur of the moment stunts won’t help Florida beat Georgia, but they can fuel the emotional tank. At the end of the day, 3rd-down defense will determine who wins the Cocktail Party.
In the past 2 years, Georgia’s offense converted 20-of-32 3rd downs against Florida, for a whopping 63%. Florida’s offense, on the other hand, converted just 6-of-18 (33%).
3. It just means more Cocktail, The Epilogue
I wrote earlier this year about how these coaches don’t like each other. It’s more than just a friendly dislike because of the rivalry.
Mullen has decided to go full-on Steve Spurrier in his attempt to get in the heads of Smart and Georgia. No one did that better than Spurrier, who was deep in the collective psyche of Ray Goff, Jim Donnan and Mark Richt.
Smart is a different cat; he won’t be intimidated. He has better players, and he knows players win games. Except, that is, this season.
Because at the most important position on the field, Florida wins by a country mile. Kyle Trask is the first game-changing Gators quarterback in this rivalry since a guy named Tebow.
Trask wasn’t necessarily ready for the enormity of last year’s game. It was his 6th career start, and Mullen used a safe game plan of short to intermediate throws.
They’ll spread the field vertically and horizontally this time, and force Georgia’s fast, athletic defense to cover in space. Mullen has the plan, and he has the better quarterback.
One big difference between Mullen and Harbaugh at Michigan: Harbaugh has never had the better quarterback against Ohio State.
That makes this game all the more important for Mullen and the Gators.
4. The quiet candidacy
Quietly and consistently, Mac Jones is having a Heisman Trophy-worthy season. He has better numbers than Clemson’s Trevor Lawrence, and his numbers project as significantly better than Justin Fields at Ohio State.
The only quarterback who could catch Jones: Florida’s Kyle Trask – if the Gators keep winning.
Jones has 2,196 yards, with 16 TDs, 2 INTs, and is completing 78.5% of his passes in 6 games.
Trask has 1,341 yards with 18 TDs and 2 INTs, and is completing 68% of his passes in 4 games.
If Florida and Alabama win out and play in the SEC Championship Game, the game that has become the showcase of the regular season in college football could decide the SEC Championship, a spot in the CFP and the Heisman Trophy.
Jones’ season numbers (11 games; 10 regular season, 1 SECCG) project to 4,026 yards, 29 TDs, 4 INTs, and are similar to projections for Lawrence and Fields.
Trask’s season numbers (11 games) project to 3,687 yards, 50 TDs, 6 INTs.
This, of course, is subject to the impact of COVID.
5. The Weekly Five
Five picks against the spread.
- Georgia vs. Florida (+6)
- Vanderbilt (+17.5) at Mississippi State
- Texas A&M at South Carolina (+8.5)
- Tennessee at Arkansas (+3)
- Clemson at Notre Dame (+7)
Last week: 2-3.
6. Your tape is your résumé
An NFL scout breaks down a draft-eligible SEC player. This week: OT Alex Leatherwood, Alabama:
“Just a massive man. His arms are like tree trunks. He has an unbelievably strong base; his lower body is powerful. I’ve heard people compare him to (former Alabama OT) Cam Robinson, and I just don’t see it. (Robinson) was raw, and wasn’t exactly a guy that was physically imposing. (Leatherwood) is more technically advanced, and he’s a mauler.
“He’s just a guy that will hurt you, in the run game or pass protection. There were a few reasons why Robinson fell (in the draft), but none more than the thought that he wasn’t a physically aggressive guy. He was more technique. I’m not saying Leatherwood lacks technique; he’s very good in his sets and his footwork. What I’m saying is I love his physical play. I want my left tackle to be a badass. And that’s what he is.”
7. Powered Up
This week’s Power Poll – and one big thing.
1. Alabama: Tide get a bye week to rest and refocus for this brutal final month stretch: at LSU, Kentucky, Auburn, at Arkansas. (that’s sarcasm, folks).
2. Georgia: A handful of nagging injuries, and the loss of star S Richard LeCounte (motorcycle accident) for a few weeks, looms large for suddenly stuttering Georgia.
3. Florida: COVID protocols just might have given the Gators an answer in the secondary: young backup CBs Jaydon Hill and Tre’Vez Johnson, and safety Rashad Torrence, were forced into play – and played well.
4. Texas A&M: It’s easy to say Aggies should be 9-1 by mid-December (at SC, at UT, Ole Miss, LSU, at Auburn), but this team – while playing better than the previous 2 seasons under Jimbo Fisher — is far from counting wins.
5. Auburn: Tigers get first win without help from SEC officials. Don’t jump on the LSU game as the answer for Auburn’s offensive ills.
6. Arkansas: The Hogs are better in all areas than the previous 2-3 years. Now it’s time for QB Feleipe Franks to play big and win a couple of games with his arm. Why not this week, at home, against Tennessee?
7. Missouri: The loss to Florida clearly showed the difference in talent between the programs. Gators are rising in the East, while Tigers are building.
8. Kentucky: Wildcats have decided running the ball and playing defense is the safest way to 5-6 wins. How else can you explain not throwing the ball until you absolutely, positively have to? Unleash QB Joey Gatewood and let him throw early.
9. Tennessee: Vols have had a bye week to figure out what’s wrong on offense. Translation: Vols have had a bye week to figure out if they want to scrap QB Jarrett Guarantano for freshman Harrison Bailey.
10. LSU: It’s almost like LSU DC Bo Pelini is calling defensive plays like he’s still coaching in Baton Rouge in 2007. Only he doesn’t have Glenn Dorsey and Ricky Jean-Francois and Darry Beckwith and Ali Highsmith and … you get it.
11. South Carolina: Gamecocks could lose out, or win 4 of 5 to finish the season – and neither would be a surprise. It’s the schedule (TAMU, at Ole Miss, Missouri, Georgia, at UK), and the uncertainty of what you get week to week with this team.
12. Ole Miss: Not sure what to think of QB Matt Corral. It’s those 18 TDs … and 9 INTs and 11 sacks. Also, he’s throwing to 2 NFL-ready receivers and an NFL-ready tight end.
13. Mississippi State: You want rock bottom? Bulldogs have 1 offensive touchdown in the last 13 quarters. It seems like a year ago that first-year coach Mike Leach’s offense was torching the defending national champions.
14. Vanderbilt: This is it for the Commodores. Play 3- and 3-deep zone exclusively, hope for multiple turnovers from Mississippi State, and get your only win of the season.
8. Ask and you shall receive
Matt: This is starting to look like Auburn and Chizik all over again. Win a championship, head for the basement. How much longer do we put up with Coach O?
Freddie: You’re giving up on a coach who lost 18 players to the NFL, who lost both of his coordinators who were among the top 3 at their jobs, and who is less than a year removed from putting together and coaching the greatest offensive team – maybe the greatest team overall — in the history of college football?
What’s happening at LSU right now isn’t easy to choke down, but it’s also an anomaly.
We’ve seen the way Ed Orgeron recruits (No. 4 in current 247Sports recruiting rankings), and the Tigers will be better by the end of the season. This is a one-off, a season of uncertainty marred by draft losses, critical opt-out defections on both sides of the ball and an injury to the starting quarterback.
9. Numbers: 300
Auburn QB Bo Nix continued an odd trend last weekend that, frankly, fits with his roller-coaster play. His 24 attempts without an interception in the win over LSU continued a streak of no interceptions in 10 career home games. This, of course, leads to the other side of the equation: in 247 passes away from Auburn (road and neutral games), Nix has thrown 10 interceptions.
10. Quote to note
Ole Miss coach Lane Kiffin: “So I told John Rhys (Plumlee) to fake to his right and throw to Elijah on a double move. He came to the sideline after throwing to his right and I said, ‘What are you doing? Elijah was wide open.’ He said, ‘I couldn’t hear you because of the mask.’”