First and 10: Why Georgia's QB battle is the most impactful in college football
1. I don’t want to get on a soapbox, but …
It’s beginning to unfold at Georgia, a distinct idea of what Kirby Smart wants to see from the most important position on the field.
Like most decisions, the quarterback job will come down to what Smart has valued most in his 8 seasons at Georgia: game management and ball security.
Yet there’s 1 wild card that Smart keeps falling back on — the same wild card that made Stetson Bennett so unique in winning back-to-back national championships.
The ability to go off schedule and make something out of nothing.
“I can think of really good things each (quarterback) did, and really poor things,” Smart said last weekend after Georgia’s first spring scrimmage. “I don’t think the dynamics have changed.”
Which is to say, it’s still Carson Beck vs. Brock Vandagriff.
It’s still what you think you have with Beck vs. what could be with Vandagriff.
Because even after Smart went on an extended soliloquy about what each quarterback must perfect on a down-by-down basis — from the play being signaled to the huddle, to digesting the play call, to calling the play in the huddle, to pre-snap reads, to execution — and how critical that was to the overall success of the offense, he left wiggle room.
Specifically, he left wiggle room for Vandagriff. Just like he did the day after Georgia won its 2nd straight national title.
When he was asked after the annihilation of TCU in the national championship game what he values in quarterbacks, Smart said, “I definitely put a heavier weight on mobility because of Stetson. I don’t know if it changes the criteria, it definitely puts more weight on mobility — and that’s a really important factor.”
Fast forward to last weekend, after the 1st of what could be 2 scrimmages before the G-Day spring game on April 15. Smart spoke about the importance of game management, and it’s clear that’s where the job begins and ends.
Jake Fromm played so well and had such a strong understanding of game management in 2017 that starter Jacob Eason never got back on the field after injuring his knee in Week 1.
Fromm played so well and had such a strong understanding of game management in 2018 that Smart couldn’t get Justin Fields — who was clearly the most talented quarterback on the roster — on the field.
Beck won the No. 2 job after 2021 fall camp, beating out Bennett for the right to back up starter JT Daniels. But when Daniels was hurt early in the season with a core injury — and with Beck running with the 1st team during practice in preparation for Week 2 vs. UAB — Smart made a late decision and went with Bennett (who started 4 games in 2020) against the Blazers.
His rationale was simple: experience and game management. Bennett threw 5 TDs in the first half, and the job was his for the next 2 seasons.
Knowing all of that, Smart still cracked the proverbial door more last weekend, explaining that it’s difficult to see the true value of both quarterbacks in a controlled scrimmage. All quarterbacks are playing in non-contact jerseys.
“It’s still a tough evaluation because there’s probably 10 plays out there in the scrimmage where I have to say a guy got sacked,” Smart said. “Well, did he get sacked or did he not get sacked because we didn’t tackle? Until you tackle a guy live, which we’re not going to do, it’s not going to give you a true evaluation.”
Which is to say, we’ve got a long way to go. This thing won’t be decided until fall camp — or longer.
2. Finding the right combination
If Beck were more athletic and dangerous off-schedule, the job already would be his.
If Vandagriff were more poised and polished running the position and avoiding bad plays, the job could be his.
That’s not to say Beck isn’t athletic, or Vandagriff can’t eventually become more proficient at running the offense and throwing accurately.
It’s which quarterback gives OC/QBs coach Mike Bobo and Smart the best opportunity to win games? The answer may be as easy as looking at the Georgia schedule.
The road to the Playoff — and possibly the first 3-peat national championship in the modern era — is the easiest at Georgia in years. It begins with FCS Tennessee-Martin, and moves to Ball State (5-7 in 2022) in Week 2.
Don’t be surprised if Georgia does what Michigan did last season: play both quarterbacks in the first 2 games of the season to see who performs at a higher level.
Michigan played Cade McNamara, who led the Wolverines to the Playoff in 2021, in the opener and JJ McCarthy in Week 2. McCarthy was then awarded the starting job and led Michigan back to the Playoff.
Georgia following the Michigan plan would give Smart and Bobo an opportunity to see how each quarterback plays as the starter, before making a decision on who plays in Week 3 against South Carolina in Athens. That would then give the starter 2 games (South Carolina, UAB) in Athens before the first road game of the season at Auburn.
While Smart has never done such a thing, he has also never been in this unique situation where he has legitimate options from quarterbacks with strengths the other doesn’t have. The closest thing to this scenario would’ve been Fromm and Fields in 2018, but Fields was a freshman.
Vandagriff is beginning his 3rd season at Georgia. Say what you want about experience, he won’t be overwhelmed by the moment — a legit concern for Fields in 2018 against a significantly more difficult schedule.
There’s also the reality that Smart doesn’t want to lose either quarterback in the spring transfer portal. By making a decision during or after spring practice, he runs the risk of the quarterback who doesn’t win the job leaving for another school and playing immediately in the fall.
The QB march, The Epilogue
Georgia’s offensive line is coming together, and it looks like there could be as many as 3-4 offensive tackles who could play legitimate minutes in SEC games.
The receiving corps — wide receivers and tight ends — are deeper than they’ve ever been under Smart. It’s such a strength for the Bulldogs, Smart noted that 3rd-string QB Gunner Stockton gets repetitions with the 3rd team offense — with tight ends and receivers who are 1st-team caliber.
There’s no reason to think the defense won’t be just as good, and could even have more disruption off the edge with the emergence of sophomore Mykel Williams.
It’s all shaping up for the historic run against a schedule that consists of 1 difficult road game (at Tennessee, Nov. 18), and nothing else that appears too difficult until the SEC Championship Game.
As long as Georgia finds the right quarterback — and there’s no drama at the most important position on the field.
“It’s about demeanor and communication,” Smart said. “A true quarterback is a decision-maker. In our system, we are a quarterback-driven offense. Decision-making is the No. 1 thing I want to see. Can you make consecutive decisions over and over that don’t cost our team games?”
4. Florida’s QB race open, too
Here’s the lasting impression of Jack Miller: overwhelmed and treading water in a meaningless bowl game in lost days of pre-Holidays December.
Before we dive deep into whether Wisconsin transfer Graham Mertz will be the guy, don’t forget Miller — who missed nearly all of last season with a thumb injury.
One Florida staffer told me Miller was throwing the ball “really well, like a guy who’s confident and not worried about an injury” — and will “absolutely” be a factor in the quarterback race.
Miller played in the Las Vegas Bowl after starter Anthony Richardson opted out to focus on preparing for the draft. But Richardson wasn’t the only player who opted out — leaving Miller to lead a shell of a team (more specifically, an offensive line) against one of the top 3 teams in the Pac-12.
Miller was also barely a month removed from an injury to the thumb on his throwing hand — an injury that required extensive rehab and kept him from playing the entire regular season.
Florida will add another quarterback after the spring portal opens on May 1, and there likely will be 4 quarterbacks — Mertz, Miller, redshirt freshman Max Brown and a transfer portal signing — competing during fall camp.
5. The Weekly 5
Five best fits for Florida QB Anthony Richardson, with odds from our friends at FanDuel:
1. Indianapolis Colts (+200): Gardner Minshew will play until Richardson is ready — and that could be a full season.
2. Tennessee Titans (+300): Might be cost-prohibitive to move up from No. 11 pick to likely the No. 3 spot. Titans need Richardson to fall past pick 5.
3. Las Vegas Raiders (+900): If QB Jimmy Garoppolo stays healthy (a big if), Ravens can slowly bring Richardson up to speed without the pressure of playing him.
4. Seattle Seahawks (+550): QB Geno Smith’s new contract is front-loaded. Richardson could be the starter by Year 2.
5. Baltimore Ravens (+1,000): It can’t end well with Lamar Jackson, and new Ravens OC Todd Monken is a proven QB developer.
6. Your tape is your resume
An NFL scout analyzes a draft-eligible SEC player. This week: Mississippi State DT Cameron Young.
“He has some limitations in pass rush, but he makes up for it with raw power and a strong base against the run. As a pure run stuffer, hold your ground guy, he’s everything you want. He has strong, heavy hands, and can hold his own against double (teams). But we’re a pass league, and the obvious question is how many snaps will he be on the field if he’s limited in pass rush?”
7. Powered Up
This week’s Power Poll, and 1 big thing: best draft sleeper.
1. Georgia: S Christopher Smith. Least heralded player from 2021 and 2022 defenses, and as critical a player as any. Smart, tough, instinctive.
2. Alabama: LB Henry To’o To’o: Not the fastest guy, but high football IQ and always around the ball.
3. Tennessee: WR Cedric Tillman. Injured much of this past season but has strong tape from 2021 as a No. 1 receiver against man and bracket coverage.
4. LSU: G Anthony Bradford. Big and strong, and more athletic than he looks. There’s a market for guys who can move large interior defenders.
5. Texas A&M: RB Devon Achane. Maybe only a situational 3rd-down back and special teams returner. But his speed and explosion are elite.
6. Kentucky: G Tashawn Manning. A big, powerful drive blocker. Perfect for a downhill run scheme.
7. Ole Miss: RB Zach Evans: Injury history and fumbling problems are a big concern. But his twitchy and explosive ability are difficult to overlook.
8. Mississippi State: CB Emmanuel Forbes. Weighed 166 pounds at the Combine — and he’s 6-1. That will scare many teams — instead of buying his 14 INTs and NCAA record 6 pick-6s.
9. Arkansas: LB Drew Sanders: Still raw (played 1.5 seasons of college ball), and has shown pass-rush skills. Could have elite growth in first couple of seasons.
10. South Carolina: CB Darius Rush. Maybe the fastest cornerback in the draft, but still learning the position. Former receiver is tall and long and potentially an impact selection.
11. Florida: DT Gervon Dexter. Boom or bust. Can he become more consistent with those rare physical gifts?
12. Missouri: DE Isaiah McGuire. Is a better fit for an odd front, where he can focus on getting the QB and chasing plays.
13. Auburn: DL: Colby Wooden. Can pay multiple positions in odd and even fronts.
14. Vanderbilt: LB Anfernee Orji. An active, aggressive player who could excel as a special teams player.
8. Ask and you shall receive
Matt: Is it fair to say Alabama underachieved last year? They had the best offensive player and best defensive player in all of college football. — Chad Phillips, Montgomery, Ala.
Underachieved doesn’t fit here, unless we’re grading by Alabama standards. If we are, then any season where the Tide don’t get to the SEC Championship Game with a chance to reach the Playoff is underachieving.
As difficult as it is to criticize last-play losses to the No. 5 team (Tennessee) in the final rankings, and a 10-win team that played in the SEC Championship Game (LSU), there is 1 lingering annoyance with Alabama’s 11-2 season.
We didn’t get to see Alabama and Georgia play.
If anyone was set up to beat Georgia, it was Alabama. In theory, anyway. The Tide’s receivers got better in the last month of the season, and there were enough problems in the Georgia secondary (its only flaw, exposed by Ohio State) that could’ve made it interesting.
A win in either last-play loss — or if Alabama simply knew how to defend a pick play on a 2-point conversion — would’ve put Alabama in the SEC Championship Game against Georgia. Beat the Bulldogs, and the Playoff would’ve looked like this:
Alabama (1) vs. TCU (4)
Michigan (2) vs. Georgia (3)
And there’s a pretty good chance those semifinals were headed in the same direction as last year’s semifinals — and we’d see another rematch in the Playoff National Championship Game. Of course, Georgia could’ve won the SEC Championship and this entire what-if is a moot point.
I wouldn’t say Alabama’s season was underachieving, but surely we all missed out on yet another classic Georgia-Alabama game — and maybe 2.
8.5. There’s little doubt South Carolina was a different team during the last month of last season, in part, because the ball started going downfield in the passing game.
Quarterback Spencer Rattler went from averaging 7.1 yards per attempt (the lowest of his career), to 8.5 in the last 3 games against Tennessee, Clemson and Notre Dame. That jump of 1.4 yards per attempt — for a statistic that is measured by incremental jumps of a tenth of a point — was significant.
It should come as no surprise then that offense under new Gamecocks OC Dowell Loggains will be more NFL-ready with intermediate and downfield throws. That’s what Rattler does best, and it fits the South Carolina personnel.
Rattler’s career-high yards per attempt was 9.6 in his first season as a starter at Oklahoma in 2020. He hasn’t been close to that number since — except for the final 3 games of 2022.
10. Quote to note
Texas A&M coach Jimbo Fisher on progress from players in the 2022 No. 1 ranked recruiting class: “A lot. Just from the standpoint of what to expect, more detail in their position work, team work, understanding and grasping the concepts in much greater detail. When you’re young, a lot of times you understand what you do. Now, you understand what the guys around you do.”