Georgia football: injuries, depth neglected reasons for championship game demise

ATLANTA, GA - DECEMBER 01: Isaiah Wilson #79 of the Georgia Bulldogs (Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)
ATLANTA, GA - DECEMBER 01: Isaiah Wilson #79 of the Georgia Bulldogs (Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images) /

Georgia football failed to hold onto a 14-point lead in a 35-28 loss to Alabama in the SEC Championship Game. Blame is being pointed everywhere except the where it belongs; depth.

Saturday’s loss to Alabama was a reminder of two things, one discouraging, another encouraging. Failing to hold on to a 14-point lead, showed that Georgia football isn’t yet on Alabama’s level. But even having a 14-point lead to begin with is proof that the Bulldogs are actually closer than anyone could have thought.

That divide between Georgia and Alabama is exactly where everyone thought it was before the season began, depth. And that divide was highlighted because of injuries to eight key players. The biggest of those key players being inside linebacker Monty Rice. He’s one of the best tacklers in the SEC and a true sideline-to-sideline player. Not yet of Roquan Smith’s caliber, but he was getting there.

But Rice hasn’t played in weeks, and the other inside backers Georgia has used in the meantime aren’t the all-over-the-field player that Rice is. Alabama realized that weakness and targeted it. Almost every big play the Crimson Tide hit was in the middle of the field, where Rice would have played. Whether it was a big run between the tackles, or a receiver getting open in the middle against zone coverage, Georgia missed Rice dearly.

The Dawgs also missed Rice against Jalen Hurts. The former starter-turned-backup may have improved, but he’s still the same scrambler that waits to make his decisions until the last second when he’s up against the sideline. If you keep a defender in front of him, he runs out of options. That’s why he struggled in the National Championship Game, Roquan Smith was always in front of him. I believe Rice would have done the same. I don’t think it’s too braggadocious to say that with Monty Rice, Georgia embarrasses Alabama

His injury wasn’t the only one that hurt the Dawgs. Not having offensive linemen Ben Cleveland, Cade Mays and Kendall Baker hurt Georgia up front in the long run. They played great for most of three quarters, but Alabama’s aggressiveness eventually wore them down. When the momentum began to turn, they seemed powerless to help keep it on Georgia’s side.

Robert Beal’s and DaQuan Hawkins-Muggle’s injuries also hurt the depth of Georgia’s defense. The Bulldogs were stretched too thin at several positions. Which is to be expected when a developing contender goes head-to-head with a perennial juggernaut. Especially when that developing team replaced 12 starters from the previous year’s team.

What wasn’t expected was how the developing team hung around with the juggernaut. Georgia led by 14 points in the third quarter, could have led by three scores if not for a heartbreaking ending of their second drive of the third quarter. Remember, Alabama were 13-point favorites, hadn’t won by less than 22 points all year, and won eight games by at least 30 points.

This Georgia team doesn’t graduate as many as last year’s, and it would be a surprise to see any junior apply for the NFL Draft. Freshmen who showed magnificent potential in 2018 will begin to reach that potential next year. Highly touted sophomores from the 2017 class should take a big step forward going into their junior seasons.

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The depth issues Georgia had and, to their credit, masked until the SEC Championship Game, shouldn’t affect them in 2019. Injuries and depth were to blame Saturday, but this might be the last time we’ll be able to blame depth for a very long time.