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Georgia’s Passing Game Is Close To A Breakout. Will Kirby Smart Allow It To Get There?

NCAA Football: Tennessee at Georgia Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports

Georgia’s matchup with Kentucky is one of the most important games of the season for the Bulldogs. In fact, it might be one of the most important games of Kirby Smart’s tenure. How Georgia approaches the game on offense will tell us a ton about the type of team Kirby Smart is trying to build.

The Wildcats and their anemic offense shouldn’t pose any great threat to the Bulldogs, but what happens between kickoff and when the clock hits zero will tell us a ton about what Kirby Smart thinks of both his team and the modern college football landscape.

Earlier this week Kirby Smart was asked about his role in the offensive meeting room when preparing for games. Part of Smart’s response was to say, “We can’t get in a boat race where we’re trying to outscore people.”

Many took this to mean that Georgia is preparing to rollout the horrid manball offense that we saw following last year’s loss to South Carolina. I am hopeful that those folks will be proven wrong. However, the last time we saw a UGA offense turn the ball over three times in a game (South Carolina 2019) it did result in the shuttering of the Georgia offense.

What is true is that Georgia finds itself at a crossroads. The offense has moved the ball in spurts, but it has yet to feel like it really has a flow. If it can’t develop one, we are in for another stretch run of watching wins that make the fanbase feel like they are seeing losses.

Ever since Georgia’s loss to LSU in last year’s SEC Championship, Kirby Smart has given us plenty of signs that say he realizes Georgia needs a more potent offense, and a strong passing game in particular.

  • He sat at the podium following that loss and said that Georgia needed better receivers. He then went and landed Arian Smith, Marcus Rosemy-Jacksaint and Jermaine Burton. Burton and Rosemy-Jacksaint have been seeing significant snaps this year, and Smith likely would be too if not for a lingering injury.
  • Smart hired Todd Monken, a man who has been a walking point producer at stops all over college football and the NFL. Of particular note is that Monken is well versed in Air Raid and Spread principles.
  • Smart then brought Jamie Newman and JT Daniels to campus. Both quarterbacks are considered NFL talents, and logic dictated that the Dawgs were bringing them to the Classic City to give Georgia a true vertical passing attack.

Since then a lot has happened, and Newman and Daniels haven’t been available. Enter Stetson Bennett IV, who has had some great moments, but hasn’t given Georgia the downfield attack that Bulldog fans have been dreaming of since watching Joe Burrow drop bombs all over Mercedes-Benz Stadium last December.

If ever there were a time for Kirby Smart to order Monken to take the air out of the ball, this coming Saturday would be it.

Kentucky is a struggling football team, but the pass defense has been the brightest spot for the Wildcats. The UK secondary hasn’t allowed a touchdown pass in their last three games, and they have pulled down nine interceptions over the same timespan. Missouri ran the ball 62 times last week and threw the ball on only 30 plays in their 20-10 victory. The Tigers held the ball for over FORTY THREE MINUTES against Kentucky.

Basically, Missouri played what many would imagine to be Kirby Smart’s dream game against the Wildcats. Georgia can do the same on Saturday, but would they get better as a team? Would it bring them a step closer to the ultimate goal of becoming a team that can beat teams like Alabama, Clemson and Ohio State? Probably not.

Georgia also needs a strong running game to be a well-rounded football team, but the passing attack is what looks like it needs work. The stat sheet says that Georgia should have run the ball more in the loss to Alabama, but the Bulldogs appear to be agonizingly close to having a breakthrough in the passing game.

Against the Tide, Georgia had open receivers streaking across the field all night.

The good news here is that Todd Monken is scheming wide-receivers open all over the place. James Coley couldn’t seem to do that, and the result was that teams loaded up the box to stop the run. The 2019 Bulldogs couldn’t take advantage of man coverage, and the offense became a sputtering mess because of it.

The bad news is that Stetson Bennett IV isn’t throwing to those open receivers. Everyone in Bulldog Nation is speculating about, and in some cases openly wishing for, a quarterback change. The reality is that Bennett is taking the hard throws and leaving the easy ones.

Another thing that has come out of Georgia’s media availability this week is that Stetson Bennett IV has been working on hitting his checkdowns. Looking at this stat, that sounds like a good idea.

Asking Bennett to throw deep off of straight drop backs isn’t a good idea, he simply isn’t having great success with deep balls. Despite that, Bennett keeps chucking up home run shots.

A large part of the issue with the Bulldog passing game is that by not taking easy yards on underneath throws, Georgia is encouraging defenses to drop more men in deep coverage. Alabama dared Bennett to throw to his checkdowns all night and he never did.

Kirby Smart could shutter up his offense this weekend and grind out a 24-6 win. Or he could take this week as an opportunity to get better and see if Monken can get Bennett to connect on some underneath throws early. That coupled with some strong runs will open up some of those deep shots later in the game, but Georgia has to be patient.

When you watch Alabama, you see a team that opens the game with deep shots week after week. Those deep shots force the defense back, and then the Tide goes about the business of picking teams apart with slants and other short routes while still mixing in some deep balls to keep teams honest. That’s not in the cards for Georgia under Bennett.

There is a path for Georgia to have an explosive offense with Bennett at the helm, but it starts with easy throws and it ends in some long ones once the defense adjusts to what the Dawgs are doing.

Right now Georgia and Monken are still feeling out what they can and cannot do. Bennett might not have been the first choice, and his performance at Alabama might not have gone the way the Dawgs had hoped, but a potent offense can be built around him. Remember, a pass doesn’t have to travel 40 yards in the air to create explosive plays. Guys like James Cook, Kearis Jackson, Demetris Robertson and others can do a lot of work after the catch if you get them the ball in one-on-one situations.

The Bulldogs can probably win this game without throwing a pass, but they won’t be able to beat Florida that way. Georgia will certainly need an efficient passing offense against Alabama if they meet again in Atlanta. Will Smart allow Monken to keep his playbook open?

With the defense the Dawgs have, some improvements on offense could make the Bulldogs into a legit title contender.

Here’s hoping Kirby Smart doesn’t revert to old tendencies before that happens. Either way, the rest of the 2020 season will tell us a lot about what Smart thinks the path to a national championship looks like in modern college football.