By sticking with Stetson Bennett, Georgia’s Kirby Smart is making a risky QB call


    If Kirby Smart is telling the truth, and we have no reason to believe he wasn’t, JT Daniels could have started at quarterback Saturday in No. 1 Georgia’s game against Florida.

    He didn’t.

    Unless Smart spent all week building an elaborate smokescreen to throw off the Bulldogs’ biggest rivals, we have to believe Daniels was finally healthy enough to take the reins of college football’s most complete team after battling a lat muscle injury most of the season.

    He never got off the sideline.

    Without more information, we have to assume that Smart finally had the option to use Daniels — one of the preseason Heisman Trophy favorites — after being out more than a month.

    He chose Stetson Bennett IV.

    And suddenly, a season of routine, boring dominance has a juicy subplot for Georgia. Is Smart — for the second time in his tenure — boxing himself into playing an inferior quarterback as he pursues a national title?

    Maybe Georgia is destined to win the whole thing this year regardless of Smart’s quarterback choice. Maybe there’s a legitimate football reason why Georgia’s coaching staff feels more comfortable with Bennett, a former walk-on whose speed and movement can counteract Georgia’s sometimes shaky offensive line play.

    But make no mistake: If Georgia’s plan was to build its offense around Daniels with the College Football Playoff in mind, that process would have started Saturday in a 34-7 win over the Gators. Instead, Smart made a loud statement by doing nothing.

    Bennett, for better or worse, is the guy Georgia plans on riding to the finish line.

    “We went with the guy that’s been out there the most, and been practicing the most,” Smart told reporters, saying the choice was about continuity more than anything.

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    It’s hard to argue with that logic based on the scoreboard. Since Daniels’ injury, Georgia has beaten Arkansas by 37, Auburn by 24, Kentucky by 17 (it was 23 until a touchdown in the final few seconds) and now Florida by 27. The Bulldogs aren’t likely to play a truly competitive game until the SEC championship where the likely opponent will be Alabama.

    But for those of us who are a bit perplexed about Smart’s quarterback usage against Florida, that’s the whole point. If reaching the ultimate goal requires you to beat Alabama and then, say, Oklahoma and Ohio State, does Bennett really give you the best chance? Aren’t you going to need Daniels, an undoubtedly superior thrower, to be game ready against the best teams in the country?

    After what Daniels accomplished last season, it’s a bit bizarre this is even a conversation. Though Bennett deserves plenty of credit for improving over the years and certainly gives the Bulldogs mostly competent quarterback play, he is not in the same talent stratosphere as the USC transfer who got Georgia’s offense rolling late last season and finished the year completing 26-of-36 for 392 yards against an outstanding Cincinnati defense in the Peach Bowl.

    Bulldogs quarterback Stetson Bennett (13) eludes the Florida defense.

    Bulldogs quarterback Stetson Bennett (13) eludes the Florida defense.

    There’s a reason SEC coaches voted Daniels on the preseason all-conference second team behind only Ole Miss’ Matt Corral. In a year of mediocre quarterback play across the league, the 6-foot-3, 210-pound Daniels popped off the screen as a guy with a legitimate pro arm who was finally putting it all together after a frustrating, injury-plagued career.

    And now Smart is going to oblige them by not playing the best quarterback on his roster once he’s finally healthy? In the bigger picture, it makes very little sense. For Smart, though, it’s almost becoming a habit.

    Oddly, Smart didn’t get a ton of criticism for the situation that developed in 2018 when he played Jake Fromm while Justin Fields mostly sat on the bench. Though it was clear that Fields was the more gifted long-term prospect and came to Georgia as one of the most celebrated recruits in program history, Fromm had taken the Bulldogs to the brink of the national title the year before and never seemed in danger of being dislodged as the incumbent.

    Georgia tried to use Fields in special packages, but it felt like he had been pigeonholed as a runner and there was no real commitment from Smart to see what he could do. The end result was predictable: Fromm kept winning most of the games but played underwhelming football, while Fields transferred to Ohio State and became one of the best college quarterbacks of the last decade.

    You can spin or rationalize Smart’s handling of that situation any number of ways, but the bottom line is that he made a comfortable decision that did not ultimately give his program the best chance of winning a national championship.

    It’s fair to wonder if the same fault lines are developing again in Smart’s thought process. Bennett can escape pressure with his legs and won’t take enough risks to make big mistakes. But the offensive ceiling isn’t very high when he’s out there, either. Against Florida, Bennett completed 10-of-19 passes for 161 yards and a touchdown. He also had two interceptions on underthrown balls, and yet it didn’t matter because Georgia’s defensive front is just an avalanche of speed and muscle that nobody has come close to cracking.

    It’s an old-school Alabama approach, a throwback to the days when Nick Saban could win national titles with quarterbacks who seemed more likely to pursue careers in insurance and real estate sales than pro football.

    But at some point between now and Jan. 10, Georgia is going to play an opponent that forces it to score points. And then, assuming the Bulldogs continue down this road, the question of their entire season will be whether Bennett is good enough to deliver.

    That’s a risky, frightening proposition for Georgia fans as they see a talent like Daniels being squandered on the bench with just four games left before the real season starts for Georgia. That’s not a lot of time for a course correction, or for a coach who might be boxing himself into the wrong quarterback decision once again.

    Follow USA TODAY Sports’ columnist Dan Wolken on Twitter @DanWolken

    This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Georgia coach Kirby Smart making risky QB call with Stetson Bennett


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