First and 10: What's at stake for Kirby Smart and Georgia in Clemson showdown? Only everything
1. I don’t want to get on a soapbox, but …
Don’t be fooled by the narrative. This game means everything for Georgia.
And by everything, I mean the season.
“Success comes to those who are too busy to be looking for it,” Kirby Smart has said over and over this offseason.
Success in a hyped 2021 season at Georgia, begins and ends with the opener Saturday against Clemson. Beat the Tigers, and the season sets up magnificently with a wildly fortunate schedule.
Lose to Clemson, and everything changes.
Because for all Smart has accomplished since returning to his alma mater in 2016 as coach, he hasn’t been able to push Georgia over the top when it comes to games against the king of college football, Alabama.
Now the Dawgs get a shot at college football king 1A, the Clemson Tigers – and more failure in this specific game exposes a nasty undercurrent that will grow stronger.
Under Smart, Georgia has recruited better than anyone other than Alabama. The Dawgs were a busted coverage from winning it all in his second season in 2017, but haven’t made a significant impact in big games since.
— 2018: Lost to LSU, Alabama and Texas.
— 2019: Lost to LSU in the SEC Championship Game.
— 2020: Lost to Alabama and Florida.
The only area where Smart’s teams have been relatively consistent: against bitter rival Florida. But even that success hit a speedbump last season when Georgia – surprise! – blew a double-digit lead (where have we heard that before in big games?) and lost big.
This program can’t afford another loss in a big game. It could emotionally drain a team that has pointed to this game, this season, for nine months.
It could knock sideways the belief that Georgia was much better than its 8-2 record in 2020. The real Georgia team won 4 in a row to finish the season with the quarterback (JT Daniels) who should’ve been playing in losses to Alabama and Florida – but wasn’t physically healthy.
It could crush the momentum of a team poised for greatness. Look, we’ve seen this movie before at Georgia, and there are multiple subplots and twists to each iteration.
Emotion and motivation are critical factors in college football, young players feeding off of success and gaining confidence and playing faster. That’s not coachspeak, that’s reality.
Now throw in a loss in the season opener to a program that has won 2 national titles in the past 5 years and has no peer (other than Alabama) in college football, and the entire formula and function of what Smart has brought to Georgia suddenly is called into question.
Why can’t Kirby win the big one?
Why can’t Georgia, which recruits better than Clemson, beat the Tigers?
Why can’t Georgia take the next step under Smart, and become the favorite to win the whole thing?
“I’ll tell you what, you see them run on the field, and there’s no difference between them and Alabama. Same players, same team, same speed,” one SEC coach told me. “Sometimes it’s just a matter of winning a game and getting your players to see it can be done. Belief is such a strong deal with young people.”
Forget about what the talking heads are saying, what everyone is monotonously repeating. This game against Clemson means everything for Georgia.
It sets the tone for 2021: a new team and its time, or another rerun of what could have been.
2. The secondary move
The events of this offseason have moved Saturday’s game at Charlotte into a more critical light.
Specifically, the SEC vs. The Alliance spotlight.
A Clemson win over Georgia is a huge step for the Big Ten, Pac-12 and ACC “alliance” desperately trying to slow the big, bad SEC from eating the entire college football world.
Because whether real or not, or believable or not, it’s no longer the SEC vs. the ACC in this rare replay of a one-time bitter rivalry from the 1970s and 80s. Just like it’s no longer SEC vs. ACC when Florida plays Florida State, or Georgia vs. Georgia Tech, or South Carolina vs. Clemson or Kentucky vs. Louisville.
Now it’s the good guys (The Alliance) vs. The Death Star (the SEC).
A loss by Georgia knocks the SEC down a peg, moving a significant win toward the alliance ledger. The more wins vs. the SEC, the more the strength of the alliance grows (whatever that means).
You may not believe it, and it may be a silly concept on its face value. But wait and see what happens if Clemson beat Georgia, and how the narrative quickly becomes the alliance – all 41 teams – can trade blows with the SEC any time, any week.
Of course it’s laughable, but no less ridiculous than the idea that Georgia can lose to Clemson and it has no impact on the season.
3. Winning when it matters, The Epilogue
Football, at its most basic and fundamentally glorious state, has always been about the quarterback.
You can fake it at other positions. Hide deficiencies and flaws, and scheme around potential disaster.
None of that is an answer for the most important position on the field.
After 5 years of being forced to play a true freshman, or botching the decision of who plays and why, it now finally appears that Georgia is set at quarterback.
Daniels won the last 4 games of 2020, and has everything you want in a championship quarterback: a strong arm, accuracy, toughness and moxie. The one thing he doesn’t have: a signature win.
Daniels’ biggest win is over ranked Colorado as a freshman at USC, or against Group of 5 heavyweight Cincinnati in last year’s Peach Bowl. Neither is exactly taming Alabama.
If Georgia can’t beat Clemson, Daniels won’t get another shot at a signature win until the last week of October against Florida, or the SEC Championship Game if Georgia can get there.
Forget about the idea that Georgia lost its best receiver (George Pickens), or rising star tight end Darnell Washington won’t play because of a foot injury.
Elite quarterbacks make everyone around them better, and make it easier for young guys who haven’t played (see: freshman tight end Brock Bowers and freshman wideout Adonai Mitchell) to make a difference.
The sport is more quarterback-centric than ever, and Georgia has an answer at the position for the first time since Jake Fromm’s freshman season ended with that blown coverage that cost Georgia a national title, and with Fromm reaching his ceiling.
Daniels, much like the Georgia program, has plenty to gain (and potentially lose) against Clemson.
4. Two QBs are better than one
There’s an intriguing quandary setting up at Florida, one that could lead to a difficult decision by the time the Gators play host to Alabama in Week 3.
The staff is excited about the potential of junior quarterback Emory Jones. He has patiently waited his turn behind Feleipe Frank and Kyle Trask and knows coach Dan Mullen’s offense better than anyone on the team.
He’s ready to play – and the staff believes he will play well.
Now, the problem (if you want to call it that): his backup, redshirt freshman Anthony Richardson, might be too good to keep off the field.
Richardson has played as well – and in one scrimmage, better – than Jones in fall camp, and has forced Mullen into a perplexing box. He knows what he has in Jones, but he sees the future in Richardson.
Just how immediate is that future?
“I’m not comparing these players, but there’s really an easy way to explain it,” one Florida staffer told me. “Now I know what it must have been like for (Mullen) to have had (Tim) Tebow and (Cam) Newton in the same quarterback room. I’m certainly not saying Emory is remotely close to Tebow, or Anthony is Cam, but (Richardson) is one of those dudes you watch and just go, ‘Wow.’ He makes you stop and watch him. Dan has talked about that with Cam. He was a guy, even then as a freshman at Florida, you couldn’t take your eye off.”
Richardson (6-4, 240 pounds) is built like Newton, but is further along as a thrower than Newton was during his 1-year stay in Gainesville. Last week during press availability after a camp practice, Mullen interrupted a question-and-answer session and asked why no one wanted to know about Richardson.
This is a guy whose coaching life has been built around procuring quarterback talent, and then developing it to an elite level. He knows a thing or two about the position (see: Alex Smith, Chris Leak, Tebow, Dak Prescott, Trask).
And there he was last week, begging the media to ask about a redshirt freshman whose only significant playing time last year came in a blowout loss to Oklahoma in the Cotton Bowl – a game Mullen himself minimized as insignificant in the grand scheme of the 2020 season.
You better believe Mullen has plans for Richardson. The only question: How short a leash does it leave for Jones?
5. The Weekly Five
Five picks against the spread.
- 1. Georgia (+3) vs. Clemson (in Charlotte)
- 2. Alabama (-18.5) vs. Miami (in Atlanta)
- 3. FAU at Florida (-24.5)
- 4. LSU (-3.5) at UCLA
- 5. Ole Miss (-9.5) vs. Louisville (in Atlanta)
6. Your tape is your résumé
An NFL scout breaks down the prospects of a draft-eligible SEC player. This week: DE Josh Paschal, Kentucky.
“He’s not the tallest guy, not one of those 6-5 or 6-6 ends. You hear that “short” thing a lot. I don’t necessarily buy it, but I understand it and what a lot of teams are looking for right now. But he does have good size, a big guy, and his motor is relentless. That’s what jumps out at you.
“He’s quick off the edge, and he has an explosive first step. He probably could’ve entered (the draft) after last season and been a third-day guy. He has a chance to really improve his stock, a lot like Josh Allen did in his last year at Kentucky. Now they’re different players because Allen is a freakish-type athlete. But (Paschal) is one of those guys who loves the game. He’s a great story, beating cancer and coming back to play at an elite level. Would love to see him have a big season.”
7. Powered Up
This week’s Power Poll and one big thing: The 2021 prediction.
1. Georgia (12-0, 8-0): I don’t care about camp injuries. This is the Year of the Dawg.
2. Alabama (11-1, 7-1): Tide will hiccup somewhere along the way. I’m going with Ole Miss — because the Kiffin factor.
3. Texas A&M (10-2, 6-2): Aggies finally hitting plug and play groove with Jimbo Fisher.
4. Florida (9-3, 5-3): Doesn’t matter who plays quarterback, Gators will have a shot at 10 wins during bowl season.
5. Kentucky (9-3, 5-3): A dangerous, physical — and now dynamic in the pass game — team.
6. LSU (9-3, 5-3): Tigers’ staff believes they not only can compete at high level — but can win the SEC.
7. Ole Miss (9-3, 5-3): Lane Kiffin says his defense will be better. It will be the difference between a good or great season.
8. Missouri (6-6, 3-5): Eli Drinkwitz has Mizzou moving in the right direction but needs more skill players who can stress defenses.
9. Arkansas (6-6, 2-6): Hogs played hard and smart in 2020. That needs to translate to closing out games in 2021.
10. Auburn (6-6, 3-5): It’s going to take a year to get every pulling the same way on the big ship Auburn. This isn’t unique to 2021 and Bryan Harsin.
11. Mississippi State (6-6, 2-6): It’s the nature of Mike Leach teams. The QB (Will Rogers) must be elite to win big.
12. Tennessee (5-7, 2-6): Vols will score points. Vols will give up many more points.
13. South Carolina (4-8, 2-6): A season of heavy lifting in Columbia with new coach Shane Beamer, and a roster void of offensive difference-makers.
14. Vanderbilt (2-10, 0-8): I’m excited for change at Vanderbilt, on and off the field within the program. That’s not translating to wins in Year 1.
8. Ask and you shall receive
Matt: What makes you think Bryce Young will step right in and play at a star level at Alabama? That doesn’t happy every day. You have to have talent. If he was so talented, how did he not beat out Mac Jones last year? — Kelly Stover, Atlanta.
Kerry: First thing: Mac Jones had the greatest single season for a quarterback in the history of Alabama football. Kind of hard to “beat out” a player like that. Secondly, watch this tape.
Finally, understand this: We can talk all we want about Alabama and the talent discrepancy (and it’s real), but the Tide became nearly unbeatable when coach Nick Saban zeroed in on the quarterback position – and those who coach the quarterback.
He convinced two respected NFL assistants (Brian Daboll, Steve Sarkisian) to leave the NFL and coach his quarterbacks and run the offense, and when Sark left after last season’s national title, he somehow convinced former NFL head coach Bill O’Brien – who won 4 division titles in 7 seasons with the NFL’s Houston Texans – to drop down to the college game and coach his quarterbacks and run his offense.
More than anything, the position at Alabama – and every other SEC team — has gone from game manager to critical component. Think about this:
In the past 4 years, the SEC has won 3 national titles. In those 3 seasons, the quarterback of the national championship team was the No. 5 overall pick in the NFL Draft (Tua Tagovailoa), No. 1 overall (Joe Burrow) and No. 15 (Jones).
That’s not an anomaly, that’s an absolute trend that can’t be ignored. So in that sense, I understand the hesitation with Young.
It’s a long way from playing meaningless snaps and completing 13-of-22 passes as a backup in 2020, to leading an elite team to the College Football Playoff. At the very least, Jones started 3 games in 2019 when Tagovailoa was injured.
Young heads into this season with a résumé that includes snaps in mop-up duty, and tape from high school quarterback factory Mater Dei in Los Angeles where he looks like Johnny Manziel.
The staff expects Young to play well, and to give Alabama what it hasn’t had since Jalen Hurts: a quarterback who can also be rare in the run game when plays break down.
The one key unknown: How does Young react on the road in the SEC in tight games? We should find out Week 3 at Florida.
14.5. While NFL personnel look at average yards per attempt as a critical statistic, there’s another you can’t ignore from Ole Miss QB Matt Corral: average yards per completion.
His 14.5 yards per completion in 2020 was more impressive considering he completed 70% of his passes and had 8 completions of 40 yards or more.
10. Quote to note
Tennessee coach Josh Heupel: “We are unfinished, and you’re always continuing to push forward. But I like this group of guys. They care about themselves and their teammates.”