Before No. 5 Georgia clashes against No. 7 Baylor in New Orleans, there might be more questions swirling around Kirby Smart’s team than answers.
A handful of players won’t suit up for the Bulldogs, and the availability of other standouts is questionable.
Here’s what we know:
Offensive linemen Andrew Thomas and Isaiah Wilson will not play, as both left and right tackles have declared for the NFL draft. Fellow offensive lineman Ben Cleveland won’t play because of an academic issue. Smart isn’t worried about those guys, though.
Smart’s emphatic message in media availabilities leading up to the Sugar Bowl has rung clear.
“I know you guys are concerned and focused on who may or may not be here or who is or is not playing, but that is not the concern of this team,” Smart said in his opening statement on Dec. 27. “This team is focused on who is here, and that's going to be a very common theme as well — for our guys to be focused on who's playing.”
Senior running back Brian Herrien is not expected to suit up for a final time as a Bulldog. Senior safety J.R. Reed won’t play due to a lingering foot injury.
Quarterback Jake Fromm and running back D’Andre Swift have not yet announced if they will forgo their final seasons of college eligibility and enter the NFL draft. Both are expected to play against Baylor, but their capacity remains unknown.
The Sugar Bowl marks a second-consecutive New Year in The Big Easy for the Bulldogs. Last year, Georgia underwhelmed in a 28-21 loss to Texas. The Bulldogs enter this year’s edition with a chance to win 12 games for the second time in three seasons.
Georgia and Baylor’s programs are built similarly, but they have taken starkly different paths over the last three seasons to land in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome.
In 2017, the Bulldogs rolled through the regular season. Georgia’s lone hiccup was a road blowout at Auburn, but the Bulldogs redeemed themselves in the SEC championship game to earn a College Football Playoff berth. The 2018 season nearly led the Bulldogs back to the CFP, but a loss to Alabama in the SEC championship game put them in the 2019 Sugar Bowl before this year’s return trip.
Baylor’s questions start at the top. Head coach Matt Rhule is in the mix for some NFL coaching vacancies. Rhule built Baylor into a national powerhouse, just a few years removed from a one-win season in 2017.
Bears’ quarterback Charlie Brewer is expected to play. Brewer missed the second half of the Big 12 championship game with a concussion.
Both programs are ready to make a statement. For Georgia, all eyes will be on if the Bulldogs can motivate themselves. The Sugar Bowl also provides Baylor with the stage and setting to prove it belongs amongst college football’s best programs.
Kickoff is set for 8:45 p.m. tonight.