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Cincinnati Poses a Peach Bowl Challenge for the Bulldogs

JT Daniels will get the chance at the Peach Bowl to prove he'll be the best returning quarterback in the SEC. Credit: Cassie Florido

Georgia will end the 2020 season where it was supposed to begin: Atlanta.

The Bulldogs were slated to play Virginia at Mercedes-Benz Stadium to open the season before COVID threw the world for a loop. But they’ll still get their chance to play down the road after drawing No. 8 Cincinnati in the Peach Bowl. While we typically have to wait a month between bowl selections and kickoff, this game will be played in less than two weeks, at high noon on New Year’s Day. (I’d say please don’t consider going because we’re still in a pandemic and whatnot, but it’s already sold out.)

On its face—based on history, talent and name recognition—the Dawgs should be in for a walk in the park. But while Georgia is favored, don’t for a second take the Bearcats for pushovers. This Peach Bowl could be a real battle, and a real test for the Dawgs ahead of next year following a slew of wins over cupcakes to end the regular season.

Let’s be clear about one thing: Cincinnati is a damn good team. They’ll come into the game ranked a spot ahead of Georgia and arguably should be ranked even higher. The Bearcats are undefeated at 9-0 and champions of the American Athletic Conference, having recorded three wins over top-25 teams.

Cincinnati shines on defense. The Bearcats rank in the top 20 nationally in red-zone defense (18th), turnovers gained (14th), rushing defense (20th), total defense (13th) and scoring defense (7th). Most impressively, they rank second in the nation in passes intercepted with 15 this season. JT Daniels will need to be dialed in to prevent the ‘Cats from taking a pass the other way.

The man in charge at Cincinnati, Luke Fickell, is also a helluva coach. After going 4-8 in 2017, his inaugural season, Fickell led the ‘Cats to consecutive 11-win seasons in 2018 and 2019 before going undefeated this year. You should expect him to be prowling the sidelines for a Power Five program soon, maybe even as soon as next season.

Cincinnati will also come into the game sporting a mighty big chip on its shoulder, and rightfully so. Despite their undefeated record and impressive resume, the Bearcats weren’t even considered for a place in the College Football Playoff, falling behind two-loss No. 6 Oklahoma and three-loss No. 7 Florida. They have something to prove to the college football world, and Georgia happens to be the team they get to try and prove it against.

It won’t be a full-strength Georgia team they face, either. With little to gain and a whole lot to lose, some players slated to go to the NFL are opting out. Linebacker Monty Rice, tight end Tre McKitty and cornerback D.J. Daniel have already announced their intention to sit out the Peach Bowl as of writing this. More will follow suit in the coming days and may have already done so by the time you read this.

But that can be an opportunity as much as a detriment. A side effect of a college football world where the ultimate goal of all the top programs is to make it to the College Football Playoff is the other bowl games losing their shine. That makes these games as much about getting young players experience as it is about capping off the season with a big game. Expect to see plenty of players you saw little of throughout the regular season garner a significant amount of playing time against Cincinnati.

It’s also an opportunity for Daniels to impress against the toughest opponent he’ll have faced in his short UGA career. With Alabama’s Mac Jones, Florida’s Kyle Trask and Texas A&M’s Kellen Mond all potentially going pro after this season—Trask and Mond are seniors but get an extra year of eligibility because of COVID—if Daniels doesn’t follow suit, he could enter next season regarded as the top quarterback in the SEC. A strong outing against a solid defense like Cincinnati’s will go a long way toward shoring up his bona fides.

In truth, the season should be over right now for everyone except the four teams in the College Football Playoff. Let those guys play, crown a champion, and let’s call it a year. But there’s too much money at stake for big bowl games such as the Peach Bowl, so the show goes on, and we gotta play. And if we gotta play, we might as well go out with a win and build some momentum toward a hopefully more prosperous—and, most importantly, COVID-free—2021 season.