Starting QBs a mystery for Georgia-Florida; the better team isn't

·5 min read

Oct. 26—There are four candidates for the two starting quarterback spots in this Saturday's Georgia-Florida game in Jacksonville.

There is only one candidate for a program on solid footing.

A year after Kirby Smart's Bulldogs couldn't keep up with Dan Mullen's Gators at a socially distanced TIAA Bank Field, Georgia is the unanimous No. 1 team in the country with a 7-0 record and a defense that looks like the college version of the 1970s Pittsburgh Steelers. Florida, however, is 4-3 overall and already out of the Southeastern Conference race with losses to Alabama, Kentucky and LSU.

"This game is not about rankings and has never been about rankings," Smart said Monday in a news conference. "It's a rivalry game, and our kids understand that one of their losses was to Alabama — which they played a really good game at home and had an opportunity to win — and that they've lost two road games. It's not about the records, and I don't think it ever is.

"It's a lot more about what we do and not about records."

Saturday's showdown is not a top-10 matchup for the first time since 2017, when Smart had placed Georgia among the nation's elite in his second season and Florida was reeling under third-year coach Jim McElwain. The Bulldogs routed the Gators 42-7, and McElwain was fired the following day.

Mullen does not appear to be in danger of losing his job less than 11 months after winning the SEC East crown, but a bad loss Saturday would reflect the restored chasm between Georgia and the rest of the division.

"It's a pretty unique deal," Mullen said. "It's the second time we're going to play the No. 1 team in the same season. That doesn't happen very often, especially in the regular season, but obviously the Florida-Georgia game is always a big game for our guys.

"I think our guys are pretty excited."

Last year's quarterback matchup pitted Heisman Trophy finalist Kyle Trask, who set a Georgia-Florida game record with 474 yards, and Stetson Bennett, the former walk-on who had replaced D'Wan Mathis in the opener. Bennett was relegated to backup status following last year's 44-28 loss, as JT Daniels took the reins and guided the Bulldogs to four closing victories, including a Peach Bowl win over Cincinnati.

Daniels began this season as the starter but has battled a lat injury in recent weeks, with Bennett stepping in and guiding the Bulldogs to a sweep this month of three ranked teams — Arkansas, Auburn and Kentucky — by a combined 101-23. Smart has been asked repeated questions regarding his quarterback situation, and that didn't subside Monday.

"It's going to be based on practice, and no decision has been made whatsoever," Smart said. "JT practiced Wednesday and did pretty good, and he practiced Thursday and did well in terms of not having any pain before, during or after, and that's what we're looking for. We'll continue down that same path with him and see how he feels.

"I think it all depends on where JT is, where Stetson is and what gives us the best chance to win. Stetson has done a good job since he's been playing, and JT has done a good job when he's played."

Given that Daniels is 7-0 as the starter and Bennett is 7-2 with losses last season to Alabama and Florida, there is hardly a chemistry issue within the team regarding who starts.

"I don't think our offensive players really pay attention or know who's back there most of the time," Smart said, "and especially this year, when there has been a lot of interchangeable parts. (Third-stringer) Carson (Beck) has gone with the ones. Stetson has gone with the ones. JT has gone with the ones. JT has been out. Carson has been hurt. Stetson's had lower back issues.

"We've had a revolving door in terms of guys who have gone there, and I really don't think it's a big deal for the offensive players in terms of who's in there."

Redshirt freshman receiver and former North Murray High standout Ladd McConkey agreed, adding, "We really are so lucky to have two quarterbacks who go out there and compete at a high level in the SEC. We really are thankful for that."

Emory Jones has started all season for Florida, but Anthony Richardson has continually thrived when coming off the bench. Jones (70.6 yards per game) and Richardson (69.6) are the top two rushing leaders for the Gators, who are on pace to set a school record with 6.3 yards per carry.

"We've got to get both guys ready to play," Mullen said. "We plan on playing both of the guys we have."

Series history

The Bulldogs lead their series with the Gators by a 53-44-2 margin according to Georgia records and a 52-44-2 margin according to Florida records. The dispute stems from the 1904 encounter, which Georgia won and claims as a series triumph but Florida does not recognize, citing that the university established football in 1906.

Florida does hold a 22-9 series advantage since 1990, when Steve Spurrier returned to his alma mater and coached the Gators to an 11-1 record in the rivalry. This game annually has been held in Jacksonville since 1933 except for the 1994-95 meetings, which took place on the two campuses due to stadium renovations for the arrival of the NFL expansion Jacksonville Jaguars.

"I think it's one of the best games in all of college football in terms of the pageantry and the 50-50 stands," Smart said.

Odds and ends

Smart did not have a timetable for the return of sophomore running back Kendall Milton, who is dealing with a "slight MCL." Georgia junior safety Lewis Cine, who has 28 tackles and an interception on the nation's top-ranked defense, has been named among the 12 semifinalists for the Jim Thorpe Award. Smart on the Atlanta Braves: "Those guys have done a tremendous job of closing and playing well at the end of the year."

Contact David Paschall at dpaschall@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6524.

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