Folks, we have a quarterback—and a good one, by the looks of it.
Having exhausted his options with Stetson Bennett IV and D’Wan Mathis, Kirby Smart finally turned to USC transfer JT Daniels to lead the offense, and the Cali boy balled out in a 31-24 win over Mississippi State in Athens.
In his first start as a Georgia Bulldog and his first snaps since injuring his knee against Fresno State in the first game of the 2019 season, Daniels completed 28 of 38 passes for 401 yards and four touchdowns. It was the best outing from a Georgia quarterback since Aaron Murray’s senior season. Murray was also the last Bulldog quarterback who had the ability to win a game, which is much different from not losing the game. (Sorry, Jake Fromm.)
Make no mistake, Daniels won us this game. Because we’re Georgia, and things can never be too good, as soon as we found a quarterback with a pulse, our defense and running game completely crapped out. Mike Leach’s Air Raid offense methodically moved the ball for most of the night until the defense clamped down in the fourth quarter. Our offensive line was bullied in the run game, and we finished with eight rushing yards.
The defense and rushing game only concern me a small bit, though. For the past five years, we’ve hung our hat on having a shutdown defense and running the dang ball. But the problems against Mississippi State seemed more like aberrations than anything systemic. For all the issues I have with Smart—the list grows every season—I don’t doubt he will get the defense and running game turned around in short order.
But because of the circumstances of this game, we needed a quarterback to go out there and win. It was clear early on that Daniels could do that. Although it took him a bit to start breaking off the big plays, his aesthetics on the field are different from Bennett or Mathis. He looks like a quarterback, especially compared to the diminutive stature of Bennett and the rail-thin frame of Mathis. More importantly, he passes the ball with power and purpose, with accuracy and touch.
With Daniels out there, the receiving corps also came to life. Freshman Jermaine Burton, a fellow California native, was blowing by defenders and making catches all night. He finished with 197 receiving yards and two touchdowns, more than doubling his season yardage. George Pickens finally looked like the George Pickens of last season. Daniels threw him the ball in places only he could come down with, and he finished the game with eight catches for 87 yards and a score. Kearis Jackson kept doing his thing and caught the game-winning 40-yard strike from Daniels on third-and-20 in the fourth quarter.
After this stellar performance, the question on every Georgia fan’s mind is: Why is Daniels just now starting? There have been rumors about his fitness all year, but we’ve received no concrete information. Daniels finally got a chance to say his piece in the postgame presser. According to him, he’s been cleared to play in every game this season sans the opener against Arkansas. Otherwise, it was the coaches’ decision.
That is not a good look for Smart or offensive coordinator Todd Monken. I won’t sit here and say we would have beaten Alabama or Florida if Daniels had started those games—not just because that’s revisionist history, but also because I’m not sure we would have. We would’ve had a better shot, though. And we would’ve had a lot more fun watching this offense.
Which brings us back around to the main criticism of Smart’s time as a head coach: his quarterback management. As much as Smart preaches the value of competition and the best player playing based on that competition, that doesn’t play out with the boys under center. If you get the job—even through unforeseen circumstances such as a player opting out of the season or injury—you have it until you lose the job. But in a hyper-competitive conference such as the SEC, losing the job often means losing games. And losing games means losing the season. Smart’s refusal to be proactive with his quarterback management will continue to cost Georgia games and seasons until there is a clear, beyond-the-shadow-of-a-doubt star who holds the position for the entire season.
Lord willing and the creek don’t rise, Daniels will become a clear, beyond-the-shadow-of-a-doubt star who holds onto the position for the entire season.
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