The return of Georgia football has left many fans wondering just what this team is really able to do.
If you’re a Georgia football fan, you probably have mixed emotions about the 37-10 win over Arkansas. A win is a win, but this had to be one of the ugliest 27-point victories ever seen.
It was a tale of two halves for the Bulldogs, but even in a second half that eased the collective fear and tension for Georgia fans, it’s apparent there’s a lot of work to do for the 2020 Georgia football team.
The biggest question coming out of the opening week victory is the same one that had been asked for weeks leading up to the game — who’s going to be the quarterback for this team?
Georgia football and quarterbacks, never a simple answer.
When Jamie Newman decided to call it quits and focus on his future in the NFL, it left Kirby Smart with a quandary at quarterback. While all four possibilities at QB were talented and had some upside, none were truly battle-tested.
One was recovering from an ACL surgery, another from brain surgery, one is a true freshman, and another had only done some mop-up duty behind Jake Fromm.
Prior to the game, Smart refused to name who his starting quarterback would be, although most suspected D’Wan Mathis would get the nod. Perhaps this reluctancy to formally name the starter was less gamesmanship and more waiting to see if a better option presented itself.
Mathis was dubbed the starter, and for a few brief minutes in the first quarter, it seemed like he might wipe out all memories of letting Justin Fields slip away.
The first true dual-threat quarterback to start for Georgia since D.J. Shockley (who coincidentally was the color analyst for the game on the SEC Network) had a nice 16-yard run (called back due to penalty, more on that later), and two passes thrown on ropes to John Fitzpatrick and George Pickens.
And then it happened.
Mathis took a rattling hit while running towards the sideline from Arkansas linebacker Bumper Pool, and while the Georgia quarterback did pop up quickly, afterward he didn’t look like the same guy from the first handful of plays.
From that point on Mathis looked tentative, off his game, and frankly, quite bad. It became clear that, at least for today, D’Wan Mathis was not the guy.
Georgia football and penalties, an even bigger issue.
After such a strange offseason and long layoff, no spring football game, and a limited amount of practice, it was to be expected that most teams would have some issues in the first game of the season.
But Georgia went above and beyond.
The Bulldogs were penalized eight times for a total of 73 yards … in the first quarter. Holding, false start, pass interference, holding, illegal formation, face mask, holding, false start – all drive-killers for the Dawgs or drive-sustainers for the Hawgs.
Georgia ended the game with 12 penalties costing them 108 total yards. It was Richt-like execution when it came to lack of discipline and unforced errors.
Luckily, Arkansas was as inept at capitalizing on the Georgia errors as the Bulldogs were at making them. Despite the ghastly number of yellow flags flying against Georgia, the defense was able to hold serve and keep the Razorbacks from blowing this thing wide open.
The second half was more like it, but…
By the time the first half ended, Georgia’s only two points had come on a safety. The offense was sedentary, the offensive line was on roller skates, the quarterback play was erratic, and the defense was on their way to getting winded too soon.
If this was the team Georgia was going to field for the rest of the season then it looked like “rebuilding” was the tag that would accompany them throughout the year.
The second half was more like it, but the issues still run deep.
The biggest change in the second half was at quarterback when Kirby decided what everyone watching had already realized. D’Wan Mathis was not going to lead Georgia to a win today.
Enter, Stetson Bennett.
Bennett played precisely like a guy who had been watching and learning from Jake Fromm. He managed the game, made a few plays with his legs when necessary, and let his backs and receivers do the work for him. Bennett didn’t light the turf on fire, but he didn’t do anything that would cause Georgia to lose either.
Georgia eventually pulled away and somehow even magically covered the spread in a game that looked more like a repeat of last year’s crushing loss to South Carolina in the first half.
Where to go from here?
Many of the issues that were seen in the first half are easily fixable. Penalties will undoubtedly (hopefully) be lessened with more practices, and the team will begin to gel and find an identity.
The offensive line is a bigger problem. This was still supposed to be a strength of the Bulldogs on offense, and against an Arkansas defensive line that had been one of the lowest-rated in the country, Georgia was the one getting pushed around. Perhaps this is fixed with more reps, or perhaps, Arkansas just got a lot better. It’s going to be something to watch in the coming weeks.
But the biggest issue? There’s still that lingering questions at quarterback.
D’Wan Mathis is a great story and could have been the feel-good inspiration human interest angle that Tom Rinaldi would take on for a College GameDay tearjerker. Truth is, it still could be. But only if what we saw against Arkansas was simply a case of nerves combined with not quite being game-ready on short notice.
But if what we saw is what we’re going to get from Mathis for the foreseeable future, then Kirby Smart still has a quarterback problem on his hands.
Stetson Bennett may have saved the day against Arkansas, but it will take more than what he offered up to beat the likes of Auburn, Tennessee, and Alabama in the coming weeks. If the Bulldogs are to topple three Top 25 teams in a row, they’ll need a quarterback who can be a difference-maker, not just a stop-gap.
Unfortunately, there’s no easy answer for the Georgia head coach. If he gives Mathis another shot against a team as defensively talented and aggressive as Auburn and things go from bad to worse, it could end up shattering his self-confidence for a long time. If he opts for Bennett, and the Dawgs lose a close one, Smart will again be second-guessed for his choice under center.
One thing is for certain. Jamie Newman isn’t walking through that door, so Georgia has to play with the hand its been dealt.