By Mark Bradley, Atlanta Journal-Constitution #atlanta-ga
We’ve heard so often that this is a year like no other that we’ve begun to take the weirdness of 2020 for granted. We were reminded Saturday how big a dent the pandemic has left in college sports. Rather than open against a directional school between the hedges or a Brand Name in some gleaming neutral site, the Georgia Bulldogs were forced to open against an SEC opponent on the road.
Ask LSU, the reigning national champ, how perilous playing any SEC opponent can be. The Tigers just lost at home to Mississippi State. Ask Auburn, which led Kentucky by two points after three quarters Saturday. Granted, Georgia’s opponent was callow Arkansas, which hadn’t won a conference game since 2017. The Razorbacks were working under coach Sam Pittman, who last year coached Georgia’s offensive line. Oddsmakers cast a cold eye on Georgia’s trip to Fayetteville and installed the visitors as 27-point favorites.
The final score – Georgia 37, Arkansas 10 – might make it appear that the Bulldogs indeed had their way. Anyone who watched knows better. Over his first four seasons, Kirby Smart has changed quarterbacks twice: In 2016 because it was clear Jacob Eason was better than Greyson Lambert, and in 2017 because Eason got hurt on the season’s third series and Jake Fromm seized his moment. This time it took Georgia’s coach 20 minutes to change his mind.
Smart chose not to reveal his starting quarterback until Georgia’s offense took the field, though most folks figured it would be redshirt freshman D’Wan Mathis, who missed last season after surgery to remove a cyst on his brain. Mathis indeed got the nod, though almost immediately we saw why the Bulldogs had opened their arms to two transfers in the effort to replace Fromm. The first, Jamie Newman of Wake Forest, announced Sept. 2 he’d skip the season. The second, JT Daniels of USC, has been allowed to practice but hadn’t – and apparently still hasn’t – been cleared for contact.
Mathis lasted six series Saturday. He cut short a third-down scramble a yard short of a first down. He almost threw an interception. Then he threw an interception, missing his target by 10 yards. He fumbled a third-down snap for a 17-yard loss. He was lucky – twice! – not to be called for intentional grounding. On those six series, Georgia made two first downs.
With 10 minutes left in the half, Smart turned to Stetson Bennett, a junior serving his second stint at Georgia. (He transferred after his freshman season to a JUCO in Mississippi. Then he transferred back.) It’s hard to imagine any Bulldogs fans – except maybe his parents, both UGA grads – who viewed Bennett the quarterback of their dreams, but here he was in Week 1, his team trailing 7-2 on the road against an Arkansas team that was beginning to believe it might shock the world.
At halftime, the nation’s No. 4 team trailed 7-5 and was that close only after Bennett led Georgia’s first semi-competent drive of the season to give a walk-on kicker the chance to make a field goal at the first-half horn. Welcome to SEC football in a pandemic year. Take a gander at the mighty conference that delayed its start by three weeks. Feast your eyes on the 2020 Bulldogs, who looked as if they had never practiced. They’d amassed 98 yards in penalties; they’d gained only 118 yards.
Said Smart, asked why he’d switched quarterbacks: “We’re struggling offensively, and we needed to change some things up. There’s some things Stetson can do well. He’s different from D’Wan.”
Bennett’s first possession fizzled when tailback Zamir White ran into teammate Ben Cleveland on fourth-and-1. The next yielded the half-ending field goal. The next saw White begin to ramble – you had to wonder how long Todd Monken, the new offensive coordinator, would need to figure out that pounding the ball is allowed – but ended when James Cook fumbled. That led to an Arkansas field goal, and everyone who took the Razorbacks and the points was feeling fat and sassy.
Then the game changed. Bennett changed it. He overcame a 12-yard loss because of another botched snap by finding George Pickens open at the left pylon. It had taken the Bulldogs 36 minutes to nose in front, but now there was no holding them back. Bennett converted a two-point conversion by diving for the right pylon. Then Georgia blocked a punt. Bennett hit tight end John FitzPatrick to make the score 20-10. Then Feleipe Franks, once an excitable Florida quarterback, threw a terrible pass that a grateful Eric Stokes returned for a touchdown.
Georgia had scored 22 points in three minutes, seven seconds. Before our eyes, the Hogs had gone from live underdogs to dead ducks. Another interception, this by Richard LeCounte on a flea-flicker, showed how desperate they’d become. Bennett and White drove Georgia to yet another touchdown, and here we had to remind ourselves that this same team had just worked an entire without managing even one. By then, Bennett had completed 20 of 29 passes for 211 yards and two touchdowns.
Mathis would return with 8:49 remaining and the Bulldogs leading by 24 points. That possession was snuffed by a holding penalty. By then, though, it didn’t matter. Georgia was 1-0, and – let’s be honest –being 0-1 with a loss to maybe the worst team on the schedule could well have wrecked this season. That didn’t happen. Maybe it was never going to happen. But this was a game going wrong until Smart turned to Bennett.
Asked afterward how it felt to lead Georgia to such a victory, Bennett said: “Nice. Better than not doing that.”
Said Smart: “We’ll decide how we’re going to go forward. Not all of those things were D’Wan’s fault. We’ve got to get better. That’s for sure.”
Someone has to start at quarterback against Auburn next week. Maybe Daniels will get the go-ahead one of these days. Maybe Mathis will find his footing. But this much we know already: When in doubt, there’s Stetson Bennett.