First and 10: What if Kirby Smart picked the wrong QB?
1. I don’t want to get on a soapbox, but …
There’s no way around it, so we might as well get it out in the open.
If Ohio State gets to the College Football Playoff and Georgia doesn’t, that’s a bad look for Bulldogs coach Kirby Smart.
If Washington gets there, it’s disastrous.
I don’t care about who has the harder road to the CFP, or who plays in the toughest conference (did you watch the SEC East Division in Week 1?). This is all about a decision Smart made – not once, but twice – that will define his time in Athens.
It was easy to ignore the decision to choose one almost 5-star quarterback (Jake Fromm) over two 5-star quarterbacks (Jacob Eason in 2017 and Justin Fields in 2018) when Fromm was the only guy on the field to protect that decision. Now that Fields (Ohio State) and Eason (Washington) are playing at major Power 5 schools since transferring from Georgia because of Smart’s decision to hitch the program to Fromm, the fallout could have far-reaching implications.
“Did you see what those two did? That has to make (Smart) sick,” one SEC coach texted me Sunday afternoon.
It’s just one week, and Ohio State (FAU) and Washington (Eastern Washington) weren’t exactly playing the elite of the game. But the numbers – and the way both quarterbacks played with confidence and poise and threw with accuracy – has to give a sense of pause for anyone associated with red and black.
Fields and Eason looked unique. As well as Fromm has played at Georgia, he hasn’t been unique. That’s not an arguable point.
His numbers (55 TDs, 13 INTs) are strong; his numbers in big games are uneven – most notably, 2 losses to Alabama.
He struggled in the National Championship Game in 2017 (1 TD, 2 INT, 50 percent passes completed), and disappeared in the final 18 minutes of last year’s SEC Championship Game (8-of-17, 77 yards, 0-of-5 3rd down conversions) once Alabama cut into Georgia’s 14-point lead late in the 3rd quarter.
Fast forward to last weekend, and the player who couldn’t get on the field for significant minutes in any critical game looked nearly flawless in his first start at Ohio State. Fields, who some considered a better prospect out of high school than Clemson star Trevor Lawrence, threw for 234 yards and 4 TDs and ran for 61 yards and 1 TD is a rout of wildly overmatched FAU.
One SEC coach told me Fields will be this year’s version of Kyler Murray: struggle in his first season adjusting to the game (Murray was average at Texas A&M as a freshman), then transfer and blossom under a new coaching staff and offense that better suits his skills.
Fields was miscast in the Georgia offense, which is based on power running and throwing off play action. Fields is more comfortable in a spread offense, and Georgia could never find a way to make it work.
Then there’s Eason, who played well at times as a freshman at Georgia (16 TDs, 8 INTs), and won the starting job going into the 2017 season. A knee sprain on the first series of the season gave Fromm an opening, and Smart never reopened the competition.
Eason hadn’t played as a starter since the 2017 season opener (sat 2018 as a transfer; has sat majority of the past 2 years), and he threw like an elite NFL prospect (27-of-36, 349 yards 4 TDs, 0 INTs) against wildly overmatched FCS power Eastern Washington.
Understand this: Georgia is 1 of the 4 best teams in the game. Georgia – like Clemson and Alabama – is expected to make it to the CFP and win the national title.
Anything less is a failure.
Anything less with Ohio State and/or Washington getting to the CFP behind 2 quarterbacks who left the program after Smart chose Fromm could impact the program for years.
2. The recruiting game
If Georgia gets to the Playoff and wins the national title, Smart will be seen as the coach who made the right choice in 2 difficult situations at the most important position on the field.
If Georgia doesn’t get there this season, and Fromm leaves for the NFL and Fields and/or Eason become unique, recruiting rivals will use it as a referendum on Georgia’s ability to develop elite quarterbacks.
That’s where it will hit hardest.
Smart has become one of the game’s best coaches because of his ability to recruit and develop players, and – except for 2 games against Alabama – win games that matter.
Programs have recruited well at every position except quarterback and never found a path to winning it all (see: Florida, post-Tebow; LSU, 2008-present; Auburn, post-Newton; Michigan, currently).
Smart has done nearly everything right since returning to his alma mater. He better hope his decision to choose Fromm over Eason and Fields works, too.
3. The throwaways, The Epilogue
There’s a strong chance that Ohio State and Washington could find a way to the CFP.
Imagine a scenario that includes Georgia needing to banish not only Alabama in the SEC Championship Game but any combination of Ohio State and Washington to win the national title.
Washington can’t lose this fall. Its nonconference schedule (Eastern Washington, Hawaii, BYU) and the overall power of the Pac-12 won’t allow it.
Ohio State, meanwhile, likely has 1-loss wiggle room as long as there are multiple 1-loss teams in the CFP race. The Buckeyes’ nonconference schedule isn’t too taxing (FAU, Miami-Ohio, Cincinnati), but the Big Ten East schedule (and the West Division rotation of Wisconsin and Northwestern) more than makes up for it.
Long story short: Smart might not have seen the last of Fields and/or Eason.
4. Big Orange deflation
You might have made a mistake hiring your coach when …
After 9 months of preparation and self-evaluation, of recruiting and developing and finding the right schemes to fit your personnel, you lose to a Group of 5 team that won twice in 2018.
After 9 months of building team chemistry, of finding a comfortable continuity among the coaching staff, nobody adjusted when the opponent did things they hadn’t prepared for when losing to a Group of 5 team picked to finish last in the worst conference in FBS.
After 9 months of building confidence in your redshirt junior quarterback, of finding the perfect scheme to maximize his abilities, you score 30 points on a team that gave up at least 40 points 6 times in 2018 and finished 122nd in scoring defense and 125th in total defense.
Here’s the distressing and depressing reality of the state of the Tennessee program: This was the grand reopening of Tennessee football, and the Vols threw up all over themselves against a bad (and I mean, bad) Group of 5 team.
If Vols coach Jeremy Pruitt can’t get his team ready to play a bad team, what in the world happens when the SEC schedule begins? Hell, what happens when BYU strolls into Neyland Stadium next weekend?
After 9 months of hearing how awful last season was, Tennessee opened the 2019 season with a significantly worse product.
Meanwhile, Mike Leach – who one Tennessee athletic director had a verbal agreement to hire, and another Tennessee AD (or whatever Phillip Fulmer’s title was at that point) quashed it – won for the 12th time in the past 14 games at the outpost that is Washington State, since he was told, no thank you, we’ll take Jeremy Pruitt.
5. The Weekly Five
Five picks against the spread:
- LSU (-4) at Texas
- West Virginia at Missouri (-11.5)
- Texas A&M at Clemson (-17.5)
- BYU at Tennessee (-3)
- Arkansas at Ole Miss (-7)
Last week: 3-2 (.666)
Season: 3-3 (.500)
6. The tape is your résumé
Each week and NFL scout breaks down a draft eligible SEC player. This week: Missouri TE Albert Okwuegbunam.
“Would’ve loved to have seen him play a full season last year. He needs reps, game snaps, more experience doing everything. He has a ton of ability; it just needs to be refined. Blocking, route running, catching with his hands and not his body, learning to use his body to shield receivers. All of that stuff. It might sound like he’s a project, but he’s far from that. He’s a lock 1st-rounder, and he can move into the Top 10 with a big season and proving he can become a consistent 2-way (block and run) threat. Had he been in (the 2019 draft), there would’ve been many teams that would’ve had him rated higher than T.J. Hockenson.”
7. Powered up
This week’s SEC Power Poll (and one key thing):
1. Alabama (1-0, 0-0): Jerry Jeudy is bigger and stronger and playing for NFL money. Look out, SEC.
2. Georgia (1-0, 1-0): I know it’s Week 1, but nothing Georgia did against Vanderbilt gave me the feel goods.
3. LSU (1-0): We’ll see this week vs. Texas just how big of an impact the combination of pass game coordinator Joe Brady and QB Joe Burrow make on the 2019 season.
4. Auburn (1-0): Bo Nix wasn’t perfect – he wasn’t really that good – but he’ll get better. And that Auburn defense is just plain nasty.
5. Texas A&M (1-0): The 2018 game every SEC snob points to when saying Clemson doesn’t have to go through what the SEC does week after week (hint: Clemson’s getting ready to make a statement).
6. Florida (1-0): Nice preseason game to keep everyone healthy and set up a revenge game (imagine that) at Kentucky in Week 3.
7. Kentucky (1-0): Another setup game, and another chance for QB Terry Wilson to refine his accuracy in the passing game.
8. Mississippi State (1-0): The more Kylin Hill runs like a Heisman Trophy candidate, the easier it will be for QB Tommy Stevens.
9. Missouri (0-1): QB Kelly Bryant needs help from his wide receivers in important nonconfernece game vs. West Virginia. Too many drops, not enough separation.
10. South Carolina (0-1): The bonus of playing Charleston Southern: freshman backup QB Ryan Hilinski can get some work.
11. Vanderbilt (0-1): Commodores must get production from QB Riley Neal to keep Purdue defense from zeroing in on star TB Ke’Shawn Vaughn.
12. Ole Miss (0-1): Ole Miss better figure out the quarterback spot with Matt Corral in what could be its only SEC win of the season.
13. Tennessee (0-1): It’s not as bad as it looked. It just can’t be. Then again, we saw the genesis of this mess last year.
14. Arkansas (1-0): Ole Miss had problems with the Memphis run game. Translation: more of Hogs TB Rakeem Boyd.
8. Ask and you shall receive
Matt: I don’t know if I can handle another season of Jake Bentley at South Carolina. What gives with him? Every time I think it’s all going to come together for him, he looks terrible. Is it too early to change?
Rock Hill, S.C.
Tara: Foundational answer: It’s never too early (or late) to change quarterbacks. That said, a foot injury has at least (temporarily) made the decision for the South Carolina staff.
Ryan Hilinski, a freshman 4-star recruit, takes over this week – and despite Bentley’s NFL measureables, could win the job by simply protecting the ball and steering clear of trouble.
The Bentley era at South Carolina has been as perplexing as any in the SEC of late. He has all the tools to be an elite quarterback (and get picked high in the NFL draft), but he’s wildly inconsistent.
He entered this season with 30 career interceptions – he had 14 last year as a junior, and only two QBs in the nation threw more – and threw two more last weekend in a loss to outmanned North Carolina.
Bentley is everything you’re looking for in a quarterback. He has great size, a strong arm and the mental makeup to be a successful college quarterback and play years in the NFL. But he continues to make poor decisions, and the last series against UNC was a microcosm of his career: missed a wide-open receiver for a game-winning touchdown (the throw wasn’t close), and made a poor decision when he was baited into a throw by the free safety and threw an interception.
Those are freshmen mistakes that just can’t happen.
Gamecocks coach Will Muschamp has been solidly behind Bentley for three years. Hilinski will have to play nearly flawlessly to keep the job once Bentley is healthy to return.
9. Numbers game
2.7. The average yards per carry for Missouri TB Larry Rountree III vs. Wyoming. That’s nearly 3 yards per carry from his 2018 avearge, when he rushed for 1,216 yards and was an undervalued reason for Drew Lock’s big senior season. If the Tigers can’t run the ball, Kelly Bryant’s job becomes much more difficult against West Virginia – and the rest of the SEC.
10. Quote to note
“We’ve definitely come out of the stone age.” – LSU quarterback Joe Burrow on the team’s new spread offense.