Georgia mailbag: Is UGA absolutely, 100 percent in the Playoff by beating Georgia Tech?


ATHENS, Ga. — Geoff Collins was released from his duties as the Georgia Tech football head coach earlier this season, which meant he would have the unusual distinction of never having led his team into Athens during his tenure, thanks to the 2020 game not happening.

How unusual was this? The incomparable Jason Hasty, athletics history specialist at UGA’s Hargrett Rare Book & Manuscript Library, dug up and passed on the details: It has been more than a century. Oliver Huie — everyone remembers him — was Georgia Tech’s coach for only one year, 1903, when the game was in Atlanta. Five Yellow Jackets head coaches before him also never coached a game in Athens, for similar reasons.

There have been more recent examples, but on technicalities: Jon Tenuta was the Yellow Jackets’ interim coach in 2007 for the bowl game, after the firing of Chan Gailey. Mac McWhorter was the interim coach in 2001 after George O’Leary left, ever so briefly, for Notre Dame.

This answers a mailbag question from way back in early September when it looked like Collins may not make it to this week and when Georgia looked like it could again be the best team in the country. Sometimes things change drastically during a season. Sometimes they don’t!

Now for this week’s mailbag, where as always questions may have been edited for length and clarity:

LSU beats UGA in the SEC Championship Game, Michigan beats OSU, Southern Cal wins out, Clemson wins out and TCU wins out … does Georgia get left out of the College Football Playoff? — Nick M.

So when I’ve bounced the question off my more nationally oriented comrades, they tend to look at me weirdly and inquire about drug testing: Of course, Georgia is in. And Tuesday night’s updated CFP rankings, which still have Oregon and Tennessee in the top 10, only bolster that.

But the assumption that Georgia is good as long as it doesn’t stumble Saturday (more on that shortly) seems predicated on the idea that Nick’s scenario is almost beyond the realm of possibility. Georgia won’t lose to LSU. But even if it does, all the other contenders won’t win out.

OK. But what if that all does happen?

Kirby Smart’s Georgia Bulldogs host Georgia Tech on Saturday and then face LSU in the SEC Championship Game. (Scott Winters / Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

Never deal in absolutes because you’re dealing with human beings on a selection committee who could believe one thing now, then could see Georgia look absolutely terrible in the SEC Championship Game and change their minds. Based on what they apparently believe now, Georgia is in. But let’s play out Nick’s scenario. Michigan and TCU would be in. So it comes down to two spots for the following:

Georgia: 12-1

Ohio State: 11-1

Southern Cal: 12-1, Pac-12 champion

Clemson: 12-1, ACC champion

LSU: 11-2, SEC champion

Ohio State looks like the easy out there, as its loss would be at home. Michigan also would be out if it loses because of its nonconference schedule. Clemson’s schedule isn’t too strong either, and while it would have a conference championship, the committee has shown in the past that it doesn’t care about that as much as it does who it deems to be the better team. So ultimately it would come down to Georgia vs. either LSU or USC, and both are fascinating debates.

LSU has two losses and a two-loss team has never made the Playoff. But Auburn was going to get a bid in 2017 had it not lost to Georgia in the SEC Championship Game. LSU also would have two top-10 wins, over Georgia and Alabama. That home loss to Tennessee was convincing, but it was early in the season, as was the other loss (to Florida State), so the argument would be that LSU, under a new coach, just got better as the season went on and head-to-head was better than Georgia.

OK, so let’s say LSU is the third team in. What about USC? You might have a resume vs. eye test situation. The resume part is hard to be certain about right now because the rankings could fluctuate depending on the next two weeks of results. For Georgia’s resume, where do Oregon and Tennessee end up, and do other opponents sneak back in the rankings? USC has wins over UCLA and Oregon State, then would have Notre Dame and whoever it plays in the Pac-12 Championship Game (Oregon?), but where do those teams end up?

The eye test, however, would seem to be on Georgia’s side. The committee likes balance, and while USC’s defense is a sieve, Georgia’s offense and defense are both in the top 10 in the country, at least right now. USC’s defense ranks 110th. For all the rocky moments, Georgia has been great when matched against two top-10 opponents. You could see the committee saying Georgia has done too much to be left out because of one bad game.

But there are only four spots. The more you look at all that, the more it would be a close call. Last year in the same scenario it didn’t matter because there wasn’t another contender who was a one-loss conference champion. This year there would be. The prevailing assumption out there seems to be operating on the twin assumptions that there’s no way Georgia loses to LSU, and there’s no way the rest of the field (USC, Clemson, TCU) runs the table. And throw in the third assumption that even if that all happens the committee members respect what Georgia has done too much to leave it out. That seems logical until all the above plays out and people say: “Hey, wait …”

So no, it’s not 100 percent that Georgia is in with a win on Saturday. Maybe more like 97 percent, which leaves that 3 percent chance, which was around Saudi Arabia’s odds to beat Argentina.

Did UK do anything different with its defense that we hadn’t seen so far this season? I’m concerned that the two worst games we have had were against two of the top-five defenses in the SEC, and if either of those teams had a more efficient or dynamic offense, we could have been in real trouble. — Stephen L.

The season is three months old, so Kentucky didn’t do much that Georgia hasn’t seen already. The wind and cold — especially the wind — mean that you can’t put too much stock in the game. But the relative ranks are legitimate to look at.

Kentucky and Missouri are tied for 46th in the nation in defensive yards per play, and those are the two-highest-ranked defenses Georgia has played. A few spots ahead of them is LSU, which is 42nd. Looking further down the road, Ohio State is tied (with Georgia) for seventh, Michigan is second, Clemson is 20th, TCU is 62nd and USC is 110th. So there’s a case to be made that Georgia should be worried as soon as the SEC Championship Game, especially if and when it matches up with anyone other than USC.

But there’s also evidence that Georgia will move the ball either way. Take the Missouri game: Georgia only had 26 points, but it averaged 6.1 yards per play, the third most against the Tigers this year (Tennessee and Florida had more). Turnovers and the red zone were the big problems for Georgia in that game. The Kentucky game was largely about the weather than red-zone issues, but even then Georgia averaged 5.6 yards per play, a number pushed down by the short-yardage problems. But in total yards, Georgia had the fourth most against Kentucky this season, a decent number considering the weather.

Red-zone touchdowns were the big issue in those two games: 2-for-5 at Missouri, 1 for 5 at Kentucky, a combined 30 percent. The rest of the season: 37 for 51 (73 percent).

As for the larger worry that Stephen points to, whether this will bite Georgia when it faces a more dynamic offense, this gets back to Georgia’s balance: Its defense held down Tennessee (third-ranked offense in the nation), Oregon (sixth) and Florida (11th). Statistically, the only other team that’s as balanced is Ohio State, and it just gave up 30 points to Maryland.

There’s a reason Georgia is the favorite to win the national championship again. But it’s by no means a shoo-in.

Do you think AD Mitchell takes a medical redshirt this season? — Jason S.C.

Not as long as Georgia is still in the national title hunt. If he can help the team in any way, he’s going to play, as we saw with George Pickens last year. Mitchell also has played in three games this year, so if he plays in two more there’s no chance at a redshirt. If he can play, he will play. Mitchell isn’t the type of prospect who will use five years of eligibility anyway, so there isn’t much point in saving this year.

And there does finally appear to be some progress with Mitchell this week in practice, maybe not enough to play, but Kirby Smart said after Tuesday’s practice that Mitchell has “done more this week than he’s done any other week. He’s closer than he’s ever been.”

What exactly is the injury to Mitchell? I know sprained ankles can be fickle, but this seems to be something else. — Grant F.

OK, a little more clarity on that via Smart after Tuesday’s practice. While Arian Smith and James Cook both had high ankle sprains serious enough to warrant a procedure known as “tightrope” surgery, Mitchell did not. Smart described it this way: “To have a tightrope you’ve got to have a certain type of injury, when you get an MRI, scan it, you’ve got to have something floating around in it. He does not have that. It wouldn’t help him. It’s a different deal. So to have a tightrope, you have to have a certain kind of high ankle sprain; it has to tear completely off. His was not that way.”

Mitchell’s MRI showed the ankle was stable both after the initial injury and after the Auburn game when Mitchell tried to play but couldn’t. Mitchell felt like he tweaked the ankle against Auburn, but the subsequent MRI showed there was no more damage than before.

It just has been a frustrating, lingering injury, but based on what I’m hearing Mitchell is trying hard to get back. Based on the aborted return against Auburn, it’s reasonable for Mitchell and the staff to be absolutely sure this time he’ll be able to come back and stay back.

Will Arik Gilbert ever play? — Paul W.

This season? I can’t answer that with much confidence. I can tell you Gilbert didn’t travel to Kentucky, while five other tight ends did. And when Smart was asked after Tuesday’s practice how Gilbert is doing, his answer didn’t seem to touch on football: “He’s doing well. He continues to grow. Just trying to help Arik as a person and a student right now.”

Am I crazy, or should we be worried about Tech? They just knocked off a nine-win UNC team. It has given other teams trouble. Please assuage my fears. — Jordan D.

Crazy? No, at least not based on the question alone, and you get credit for self-awareness. Georgia Tech is also clearly a different team under Brent Key, who is 4-3 with three road wins. The team looked like it had packed it in under Collins, but Key has the Jackets playing hard, and they’ll arrive at Sanford Stadium with some confidence. It’s also a noon kickoff, and with those, you never know.

But those factors can only go so far. For one thing, Georgia Tech will really struggle to score, coming in averaging 14 points per game against FBS opponents. The Yellow Jackets’ defense is coming off a performance in which it probably ended Drake Mayes’ Heisman Trophy hopes, but it also gave up 41 points to Florida State and 35 to Miami, both within the past month. Even if Georgia again plays down to its opponent and finds itself in a game, the talent gap is just so lopsided that it won’t take too much to restore order. Plus the chances of overlooking the Yellow Jackets were lessened thanks to that UNC final score, which Smart surely loved seeing. There also isn’t a history of Georgia under Smart looking past this game to the SEC Championship Game, the one time it lost to Georgia Tech was a year it wasn’t headed to Atlanta the next week.

One more point: What had North Carolina done to earn its ranking, besides only having one loss, which was to Notre Dame, which also handed Clemson its one loss. The ACC, in general, lacks impressive wins this year, other than Florida State beating LSU, by one point in Week 2. There’s a chance for the conference to earn some swagger back this weekend in rivalry games against SEC teams. But it’s hard to see the one in Athens as being that close, as long as Georgia shows up mentally.

Let’s say the Georgia Tech game goes as expected (Georgia is favored by five touchdowns). Which is more important in the second half from a coaching standpoint — trying to get/keep Stetson Bennett in a rhythm ahead of the SEC title game or getting Carson Beck some meaningful game time in case of an injury to Bennett? — Richard C.

Get Beck — and possibly even Brock Vandagriff — some meaningful game snaps, not only for their development but to avoid injury to Bennett. The one caveat would be if Georgia builds a huge lead via other ways, but then you’re talking about a starting QB who is now in his third year as the starter, I’m not sure a few series against Georgia Tech is going to matter very much for the stretch of this season.

Do you have any advice for how to handle the Georgia fan who continues to insist Bennett is a problem and that any “struggle” on offense would be solved with a more capable quarterback? These conversations have become as unpleasant as Thanksgiving family political discussions. Can you help us? — Christian T.

I’m happy to offer life advice. Yes, we all have Stetson truthers in our midst. Some are in the comment section here. Some are in the same press box as me. Luckily nobody I’m seeing over Thanksgiving is, because nobody in my extended family really understands what I do anyway, other than my son, who is a Tennessee fan. (Long story.) But as I see it, you have three options when encountering such a person:

1. You can engage with this person, and it will go about as well as if you discussed politics. Nobody is going to change anyone’s mind on this. We are now into Year 3 of Bennett starting. He has quarterbacked the team to a national championship. He has a 25-3 record as a starter, and he’ll probably break the program record for single-season passing yards, despite having thrown only a few more fourth-quarter passes than you and me. At this point, if anyone’s not convinced that he’s a good quarterback, they’re not going to be convinced.

2. Thus your response could be to smile, shake your head, and change the subject to something less polarizing. May I suggest: “Hey, how about this Elon Musk guy?”

3. You could try a middle road. Feel free to co-opt this: “Look, hardly any of us seriously thought Bennett could be the starter. Even Todd Monken didn’t; when he got here he told Bennett he didn’t see him as the starter and had him fourth-string. Less than two years later, Monken changed his mind. Monken knows 10,000 times more about football than I do. So once he was won over by Bennett, so was I. But if you still don’t feel the same way, that’s fine. Now, please pass the mashed potatoes.”

Happy Thanksgiving everybody. And please, remember the true meaning of the day: Once the feast is over, you’re finally allowed to play Christmas music.

(Top photo of Kenny McIntosh: Jeffrey Vest / Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)