Through pluck, luck, ingenuity and intelligence, Kirby Smart has become one of the nation's best managers of the quarterback position. None of that quite explains No. 4 Georgia's current situation heading into this weekend's game against No. 7 Auburn.
The Bulldogs' season hangs in the balance because of what we don't know: Who will be the man in the shotgun Saturday and for the rest of the season?
Anyone who purports to know simply does not. After Wake Forest transfer Jamie Newman opted out a month ago, redshirt freshman D'Wan Mathis started against Arkansas and quickly played himself out of the job. At least for now.
"I don't think you can not lose confidence," Smart said of Mathis' 8 of 17 performance (with an interception) that caused his removal 5 minutes into the second quarter. "Realistically, it affects you emotionally. The kids that we deal with nowadays live in the outside world. They have to learn to tune it out at a young age. That's really hard to do. We support him internally."
Externally, it looks like a quandary. Newman reportedly opted out for the NFL Draft because he was losing the job to Mathis during the offseason. If Mathis was that good, how did he crash and burn so quickly against ARKANSAS? Whatever the answer, it was clear former walk-on Stetson Bennett was better -- much better. Bennett quickly rallied the Dawgs to a 37-10 win.
"We've got to do a better job as a staff, including me, of helping our quarterbacks be successful," Smart said after the game.
So, what we're left with is Mathis out of the picture, at least for the moment. There's Bennett, who has thrown less than 60 passes on the FBS level after redshirting at Georgia in 2017, playing JUCO football for a year and then returning to the Dawgs. The junior has yet to start a game.
USC transfer JT Daniels, the best option, was medically cleared this week -- one year after ACL surgery. As a freshman in 2018, Daniels threw for 2,700 yards and 14 touchdowns for the Trojans. He transferred following the injury and Kedon Slovis' emergence in 2019. (Here's more background on Daniels.)
We can only assume Smart's deft handling of the position will win out. These are days when, if you're not startin', you're departin'. Smart created what he loves most at the position – competition – by adding Newman to the roster. When Jake Fromm arrived in 2017, Jacob Eason transferred to Washington. Justin Fields backed up Fromm for a season in 2018 before transferring to Ohio State.
Eason was the No. 4 player in the Class of 2016, per the 247Sports Composite. Fromm was the No. 3 pro-style quarterback in the Class of 2017. Depending on which recruiting service you follow, Fields (or Trevor Lawrence) was the No. 1 player in the Class of 2018. Newman was a ready-made starter. Daniels, the No. 2 quarterback in 2018, was the a top-20 national recruit. That's a lot of arm talent in one program ... in a short period of time.
Is there such a thing as gathering too much talent at the position? Fields went on to lead Ohio State to the College Football Playoff. It can be argued that the prospects of what Fields could do in 2020 led Ohio State's vocal pitch for the Big Ten to restart its season.
It's hard to argue against Smart's approach. Georgia has won the SEC East three times in his first four seasons with an SEC title and College Football Playoff National Championship appearance to boot.
Georgia's quarterback position is suddenly one of the most significant storylines of the young season. The 10-game season is a sprint with no margin for error. No. 3 Florida did nothing to dispel its status as the SEC East frontrunner, jumping over Georgia in every set of rankings (including the CBS Sports 76) after last week's games.
Georgia's strength is its defense, but it's become clear a difference-making quarterback can make, well, a difference. Daniels is cleared, but is it an assumption he will win the job and play in the SEC at the level he did in Pac-12?
Quite a stage to answer those questions come Saturday, the 125th renewal of the Deep South's Oldest Rivalry.
Jimbo Fisher is being paid $75 million for Saturday: Well, not just for Saturday, but to beat No. 2 Alabama on Saturday (3:30 p.m. ET on CBS). That's another way of saying it's getting close put up or shut up time for the third-year coach at No. 13 Texas A&M. Actually, it's been that way for a while for Nick Saban's former assistants. They are 0-19 against the old man heading into this game.
"It's not about me and Nick," Fisher said. Actually, it is. Saturday begins a stretch of Saban facing four former assistants. Fisher has yet to break through at Texas A&M, going 3-7 against ranked teams. Take it back to his last season at Florida State, and that record is 3-10. None of those wins have been against Alabama, an 18-point favorite entering Week 5.
That's essentially why Fisher was hired three years ago for that $75 million over 10 years -- to beat Saban and supplant Alabama as the dominant team in the SEC. That's why the A&M president presented Fisher with an undated national championship plaque before his first season. The message was more than implied. Longing in College Station, Texas, could turn to impatience in a hurry. Fisher's money is guaranteed, his success is not.
"It's always a measuring stick when you play Alabama as far as where you stand in the national scene because they've been on top of it for so long," Fisher said. "We've got to keep on top of it, keep developing. You still got step up and play well and find a way to win these games."
Texas A&M hasn't beaten Alabama since 2012 with Johnny Manziel in the shotgun. The Aggies have lost by a cumulative 41 points to the Crimson Tide over the last two seasons. Four of Fisher's nine losses at Texas A&M are to Saban.
Fisher was Saban's coordinator at LSU from 2000-04; he helped the Tigers win the 2003 national championship. That stay included two more years under Les Miles, further enhancing Fisher's career. "People want to hire people that come from successful places," Fisher said.
A reckoning for Oklahoma this week at Iowa State? The No. 18 Sooners haven't lost consecutive regular-season games since 1999. If it happens, they will likely be out of the playoff race in the first week of October. Going into the season, all three of Lincoln Riley's regular-season losses had come in this month. Iowa State rebounded from a shocking season-opening loss to Louisiana with a 37-34 win over TCU last week.
SEC rosters got a boost from the league: The SEC's decision to allow intraconference transfer exceptions has implications beyond Saturday. If you missed it, Tennessee offensive lineman Cade Mays and Kentucky quarterback Joey Gatewood were allowed immediate eligibility after transferring from Georgia and Auburn, respectively. Mays could start for No. 21 Tennessee against Ole Miss. Gatewood is almost assured of playing against Missouri. Wildcats offensive coordinator Eddie Gran had a set of plays on his call sheet ready last week in case Gatewood got eligible at the last minute. The bigger picture: Commissioner Greg Sankey's announcement is a sign that one-time transfers in all sports are going to be a rubber stamp for the NCAA at its January convention.
There was a blip for Mississippi State: Lost in K.J. Costello's fantastic debut? Mississippi State's quarterback has more turnovers (three) than 35 teams. Four if you a count an errant snap that hit him in the chest at LSU. That went down as a "team fumble". Newly minted No. 16 Mississippi State hosts Arkansas.
Big effort: Shout out to San Jose State, which bussed almost six hours North of the Bay Area on Friday to Division II Humboldt State just to continue practicing. Local COVID-19 restrictions have limited the Spartans. It is the latest strange chapter in this season. The Spartans are traveling 325 miles to practice football at a school that dropped the sport in 2018.
Quick kicks: This is the first time since 2018 that No. 1 Clemson (-18 vs. Virginia) has been favored by less than three touchdowns in an ACC game … South Carolina (+18 at Florida) has covered the last five times out as two-touchdown underdog under Will Muschamp … the last time North Carolina (-14 at Boston College) was favored by more than 13 points in an ACC road game was 1997. That was Mack Brown's final season in his first go-round with Tar Heels … Air Force opens its season (vs. Navy) tied with Notre Dame for the nation's longest winning streak (eight games) … in normal times, this is what Alabama recruits would see prior to the Texas A&M game.