1. I don’t want to get on a soapbox, but …You see another Georgia rout, a big win on the road to something much bigger in the College Football Playoff.
I see a big, flapping red flag.
Wait, make that Crimson.
“At the end of the day, we went with continuity,” Georgia coach Kirby Smart said of the one question that has hung over this program for 3 seasons.
Stetson Bennett, Georgia’s right-place, right-time quarterback – because, really, what else can we call him? – beat Florida and won another game against a ranked team last weekend.
He won’t beat Alabama.
And he might have to beat them twice.
If we’ve learned one thing over the first 2 months of the college football season, it’s that Georgia and Alabama are the best teams in the nation. Barring an unforeseen Alabama loss in November (the Iron Bowl is the only possibility), the Bulldogs and Tide will play in the SEC Championship Game.
If Alabama wins, they’re both in the CFP. And if Alabama wins, Georgia better be prepared to play the Tide twice – a distressing reality for Georgia and Smart.
Here’s the kicker: While we’ve all been celebrating an unreal Georgia defense, we’ve been ignoring the elephant(s) in the room.
— Alabama is getting better and better, and is built to beat Georgia (more on that later).
— Georgia isn’t beating Alabama, or winning CFP games, without JT Daniels playing quarterback.
If that wasn’t abundantly clear to Smart after Georgia’s rout of Florida, after Bennett threw 2 interceptions and the Georgia offense struggled against a Gators defense that 2 weeks ago gave up 18,000 rushing yards to discombobulated LSU, we’re moving closer and closer to Smart making another incomprehensible coaching move at the quarterback position.
To be fair, Smart sounded after the Florida game like a coach who realized the enormity of the situation. For 2 years, he has been overly defensive of Bennett and critical of media questioning his defense of Bennett, a former walk-on and the epitome of everything he wants from his players: overachievers who prepare, practice and reach their ceiling.
After Bennett’s performance in the Florida win, after the Gators essentially gifted 21 points in a rivalry game, Smart softened a bit on his defensiveness.
“Stetson has done a good job,” Smart said. “Probably the biggest thing is JT has not been in practice as much as Stetson. So we went with the guy that’s been practicing the most, and has been out there the most. JT felt good last week, and then he took quite a few reps this week. But at the end of the day, we went with the guy that had the most continuity, and we thought we were playing well offensively.”
Translation: As soon as Daniels is prepared to play, he’s playing.
There’s really no other way around this. Georgia has 4 games remaining (Missouri, at Tennessee, Charleston Southern, at Georgia Tech) until the SEC Championship Game, and there’s no time for hurt feelings or playing favorites. If Daniels is ready to play – and it appears he is – he starts next week against Missouri.
Period. Full stop.
Daniels needs game reps, needs to build a rhythm within the offense and his receivers to set up the biggest games of the season. And more than anything, Daniels is, by far, the better quarterback.
One of the telltale signs of efficient play – beyond being set up by the best defense in the nation or a strong run game – is efficiency at the most adverse moment of the game: 3rd down.
On 3rd downs this season, Bennett has completed 14-of-24 passes for 99 yards and 4 conversions.
Daniels has completed 16-of-18 3rd-down throws for 152 yards and 11 conversions.
When Georgia runs into an offense that can score on its defense – Alabama, Ohio State, Oklahoma, Oregon – the Dawgs better have an ability to match points or outscore.
“We think we have two really good quarterbacks,” Smart said.
Only one can win a national championship, and he must play now.
Because You Know Who is lurking and waiting.
2. The Tide are risingHere’s the problem with being the undisputed king: Every misstep is overanalyzed and criticized.
Alabama is still Alabama, everyone.
We may criticize a secondary that struggles in coverage, or a front four that doesn’t get pressure like it used to. We may say the receivers aren’t like All-Americans of the past, or the offensive line isn’t dictating tempo of the game.
All are legitimate concerns – for Alabama. For anyone else in any other situation, those concerns would be laughable. But this is the bar Nick Saban has created by winning 6 national titles in Tuscaloosa.
Alabama is No. 2 in the nation in scoring offense (45.9 ppg.), and No. 4 in run defense (89.6 ypg.).
Georgia’s strength is scoring defense (5 TD in 8 games), and rush offense (193 ypg.)
See where this is headed?
So amid all the fabricated Alabama doom and gloom – even Saban has joined the chorus: “I think (mistakes) really need to get corrected, or they’re going to cost us at some point,” — it’s time to remind everyone that Alabama has an offense that will score on anyone (including Georgia), and a quarterback who has yet to show his full skill set.
We’ve seen Bryce Young escape pressure and make accurate throws. We’ve even seen him escape and pick up chunk plays. We haven’t yet seen him run zone read and truly unpack his dual-threat skills.
“He reminded me of Johnny Manziel the way he ran (in high school),” an SEC coach told me. “There’s only one reason they’re not using that now.”
That reason is simple: There’s no one behind Young. If freshman Jalen Milroe or sophomore Paul Tyson are playing quality snaps, Alabama is in deep trouble.
More than likely, Saban and Alabama OC Bill O’Brien will unleash some form of Young in the run game during the SEC Championship Game. Young can’t get hurt, so the staff has been overly cautious about putting him in position to absorb hits.
But once the Georgia game arrives, everything is on the table. Because a CFP spot is on the table, too.
The Tide offensive line has struggled at times in pass protection, forcing Young to break containment and run — so we’ve seen some of that dynamic ability. The line is better at run blocking than pass protection, and Alabama has tried to rely more on the run in the past 2 games since losing at Texas A&M.
The run-pass balance has gone from nearly 50-50 (207 rush, 205 pass), to 59% run, 41% pass (100 rush, 71 pass) in the 2 games following the loss to the Aggies.
Expect that trend to continue – all the way to the Iron Bowl at Auburn, and until the SEC Championship Game. Only then will we likely see some form of Young in the quarterback run game.
3. Don’t forget about Alabama, The EpilogueIf there’s one area of concern at Alabama, it’s coverage in the secondary.
Typically, when there are concerns in the back end, it means the front 7 isn’t getting enough pressure. That’s where this issue begins and ends for Alabama.
The loss of Christian Allen in the season-opener hurt Alabama’s ability to generate a consistent pass rush. Will Anderson is having an All-American type season, but the Tide would’ve been significantly tougher to block – and Anderson would get less double teams – if Allen were on the field.
Freshman Drew Sanders was developing into a presence off the edge before breaking a bone in his hand. He has missed the past 3 games and could be available this week vs. LSU.
Alabama defenses typically get better as the season progresses, including last year’s criticized group that played its best ball in the last 6 weeks of the season (with the exception of the Florida game).
The Tide played well in holding Mississippi State to 6 points but took a step back with a few blown coverages in a rout of Tennessee. Still, there is perspective: Alabama is in the top 30 in nearly every major defensive statistical category.
If it’s going to turn to elite – and history under Saban says it more than likely will – it happens over the next 4 weeks where the defense won’t be stressed in the passing game (LSU, New Mexico State, Arkansas, at Auburn).
4. Mullen on paradeThis has become a sideshow to the freakshow.
Florida loses a game, and Dan Mullen gets defensive or belligerent or downright embarrassing.
It happened 3 times last season and led to some anxious times while figuring out a contract extension.
It has happened again this season, first after the loss to Kentucky — where Mullen let everyone know the Gators outgained the Wildcats despite a game where it was called for 8 illegal procedure penalties.
And it happened again last week in the loss to Georgia, where Mullen seemingly downplayed the gap in talent between the bitter rivals.
“Well, we were better last year and they were better this year,” Mullen said. “What do you think?”
It’s no secret that Mullen has lost head-to-head recruiting battles with Smart for a majority of the Bulldogs’ elite defense. From star LBs Nakobe Dean and Nolan Smith, to DT Jalen Carter and CB Kelee Ringo, all chose the Dawgs over the Gators.
Not coincidentally, Mullen’s Gators have lost 7 of their past 9 games to Power 5 opponents, and Smart’s Dawgs haven’t lost since losing to the Gators in 2020.
So, in the words of Mullen, what do you think?
5. The Weekly FiveFive picks against the spread
- Missouri (+39) at Georgia
- Mississippi State (+5) at Arkansas
- Tennessee (+3) at Kentucky
- Auburn at Texas A&M (-6)
- LSU at Alabama (-25)
6. Your tape is your résuméAn NFL scout breaks down a draft eligible SEC player. This week: Alabama WR Jameson Williams.
“What an embarrassment of riches at wide receiver for Ohio State if this guy can’t get on the field. Love his speed, of course. Straight-line speed, and explosion out of cuts. He’s not the most physical guy, and he’s nowhere close to being a finished product. I really hope he stays another year there, develops his game and becomes a more polished player. But honestly, it wouldn’t surprise me in the least if he comes out. And it also wouldn’t surprise me if a team takes him in the first round. It’s all about the vertical game now, and there’s no better way to make that happen than having a guy who can take the top off it. Watch him as they finish out. They’re going to him more, and if he starts making big plays in big games, he’s coming out.”
7. Powered UpThis week’s Power Poll, and one big thing: biggest overreaction of 2021.
1. Georgia: The loss of WR George Pickens will cripple the passing game.
2. Alabama: Defense will be the team’s strength until the offense gets used to a new QB and OC.
3. Texas A&M: Get ready for a deep slide with backup QB Zach Calzada.
4. Auburn: Bryan Harsin doesn’t know the SEC, and the assimilation will take at least a full season.
5. Ole Miss: Call me when they play defense (they really do).
6. Kentucky: Passing game whiz Liam Coen will minimize a talented running game.
7. Mississippi State: The Air Raid won’t work in the SEC, with fast defensive lineman disrupting quarterback-receiver timing.
8. Arkansas: QB KJ Jefferson can’t throw effectively to win games that matter.
9. LSU: 2020 was an aberration; the talent will take over.
10. Florida: A close loss to Alabama had Gators primed for a rematch in the SEC Championship Game.
11. Tennessee: Vols don’t have the quarterback or skill personnel to make Josh Heupel’s offense work.
12. Missouri: Steve Wilks’ NFL experience will reinvent the Missouri defense.
13. South Carolina: Gamecocks have enough on defense to get games into the second half.
14. Vanderbilt: It can’t be as bad as last season.
8. Ask and you shall receiveMatt: Is it possible Bryan Harsin has received his vaccine and simply isn’t telling the media because he doesn’t want to? I’d hate to lose him because of something so minor, like Washington State lost its coach. He seems like such a great fit. Gail Thompson, Atlanta.
Gail: There’s a lot to unpack here. First, understand that Harsin has always been a guy who stands on principle. He has never been intimidated by anyone when it comes to making decisions that impact his program or his personal life.
Or as one longtime coach who knows Harsin well told me, “He absolutely will not get off that spot. Because he thinks if he does, you can move him off others.”
In other words, even if he has received a COVID vaccine – by university mandate, he must receive the vaccine or receive an exemption by Dec. 8 or risk termination – he will not share the information. He has said in the past that he “won’t discuss any individual’s decision or vaccine status, including my own.”
I don’t know if Harsin has received his vaccine, nor do I care. I have been vaccinated, and I believe it helps. But I also realize others think differently – and they’re allowed to do so without being intimidated or shunned because they do.
If it costs them their job, that’s their decision. For some, it’s absolutely not a “minor” decision for any number of reasons.
Unfortunately, this ongoing story has overshadowed the job he has accomplished not only at Auburn, but specifically with enigmatic QB Bo Nix. The Tigers are playing well, Nix is playing with confidence and Auburn could be a significant problem for Alabama at the end of the month.
9.Numbers92.3. Mississippi State QB Will Rogers completed 36-of-39 passes against Kentucky’s stout defense, setting an SEC record for single-game completion percentage.
Rogers, in his second season as starter under Mike Leach, is on pace to throw 707 passes in a 13-game season. If he hits that number, he will be 5th all-time in the NCAA single-season record book.
The 4 quarterbacks ahead of him were all Leach quarterbacks: BJ Symons of Texas Tech (719 in 2003), Connor Halliday of Washington State (714 in 2013), Graham Harrell of Texas Tech (713 in 2007) and Kliff Kingsbury of Texas Tech (712 in 2002).
10. Quote to noteGeorgia coach Kirby Smart: “There’s no coach out there that can out-coach recruiting. No coaching is going to out-coach players. Anybody will tell you our defense is good because we have good players.”
First and 10: Kirby Smart knows Georgia can’t beat Alabama with Stetson Bennett. Yet here we are …
Stetson Bennett is a great story. JT Daniels is the better QB. What will Kirby do? Matt Hayes on that, Alabama's big weapon, Bryan Harsin's vaccine status, SEC Power Rankings and more.