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Georgia quarterback Stetson Bennett IV (13) throws the ball on Saturday, Oct. 10, 2020 in Sanford Stadium in Athens, Georgia. Going into the half, the Volunteers led the Bulldogs 21-17. (Photo/Julian Alexander, jalexander@randb.com)

After the initial spread of COVID-19 canceled spring football practice in March, the coronavirus loomed over the 2020 season. A lack of conditioning and the threat of outbreaks across Georgia’s SEC-only schedule were key concerns for head coach Kirby Smart. 

More than halfway through the season, neither concern has significantly contributed to Georgia’s mediocre SEC record. Instead, COVID-19’s known direct impact was limited to one preseason opt-out. The resulting inexperience at quarterback and a swath of injuries described by Smart as “freaky deals” have taken a larger toll on the team’s conference standing.

“I don’t hone in on the adversity, the problems, the issues,” Smart said in a virtual press conference on Nov. 9. “We are fortunate, knock on wood, in terms of COVID. We have been unfortunate in terms of injuries. … But you don’t control that.”

Meanwhile, Florida, LSU, Vanderbilt, Mississippi State and Texas A&M have all reported game-postponing COVID-19 outbreaks this fall. The only information about positive tests at Georgia came from an open records request issued on June 9 by the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. The University of Georgia Athletic Association responded on Sept. 18, revealing seven players had tested positive between then and June 8, when football players returned to campus for voluntary workouts.

Since then, Georgia football hasn’t announced another positive test anywhere in the organization. But Georgia hasn’t let its guard down. 

Beyond the inconvenience of reduced rosters and postponed games, COVID-19 can still lead to serious short and long-term health consequences. Heart effects, such as the inflammation of heart muscle tissue called myocarditis, is a particular concern for athletes pushing their bodies in training and competition. Players continue to assume these risks when they clear COVID-19 protocols and return to the field. 

Quarterback experience wanted

Wake Forest graduate transfer quarterback Jamie Newman opted out of the season to prepare for the NFL draft on Sept. 5. Citing the uncertainty caused by the pandemic, Newman became Georgia’s only player to officially miss playing time due to COVID-19, as of press time.

With Newman’s decision, redshirt freshman D’Wan Mathis and junior Stetson Bennett became front-runners for starter, a role neither had assumed in Athens. In Georgia’s biggest matchups this season against Alabama and Florida, they fell short. Bennett completed 23 of 56 passes for 347 yards, three touchdowns and four interceptions. Mathis went 4 of 13 for 34 yards, one score and two picks against the Gators.

“We were trying to respond to [adversity],” said Georgia’s reception leader Kearis Jackson in a virtual press conference after the Florida game. “But we couldn’t make too many plays. We couldn’t extend drives.”

While its most experienced scholarship quarterback waits to turn pro, Georgia appears aimless under center.                                 

Games moved

The pandemic has also made scheduling uncertain. Georgia’s Oct. 31 bye moved up a week due to an outbreak among Florida players, and a Missouri outbreak postponed Georgia’s game set for Nov. 14.

However, time off wasn’t problematic for Smart. The postponements gave Georgia an extra week to recover after both its major losses, and Smart was more preoccupied with his players avoiding risks during free weekends.

“We don’t control what they do when they leave our building,” Smart said in a virtual press conference on Oct. 26. “Whatever decisions they are making or wherever they are traveling to, it is very concerning. We try to educate them on what’s going on in the NFL and across college football, how it impacts them and how it could impact our team.”

Those fears haven’t materialized yet in the form of a COVID-19 outbreak at Georgia. Instead of virus-related illness, injuries have been responsible for persistent personnel problems. Unlike soft tissue injuries and muscle tears that might occur from reduced offseason training, the broken bones and sprains suffered by Georgia players can crop up in any season.

Injuries mounting 

Sophomore wide receiver Dominick Blaylock fell first with a season-ending ACL tear before Week 1. Fellow wideout George Pickens (upper-body) and running back Kenny McIntosh (knee) were inactive for Weeks 6 and 7. 

A host of Bulldogs left the game against Kentucky, including defensive lineman Jordan Davis (elbow), who remains week-to-week. Defensive back Richard LeCounte was hospitalized from a dirt-bike accident after returning from Kentucky and is out indefinitely.

Against Florida the following week, injuries sidelined running back Kendall Milton (MCL sprain), receiver Marcus Rosemy-Jacksaint (fractured ankle) and Bennett (shoulder sprain). Defensive back Lewis Cine was ejected for targeting but also underwent concussion protocol after a hit against Florida tight end Kyle Pitts. 

Rosemy-Jacksaint underwent season-ending surgery, Milton will be out for three to four weeks as of press time, Cine had not yet cleared concussion protocols as of Nov. 9 and Bennett was questionable leading up to Nov. 14.

“Everybody wants to point at the trainer or the strength coach or whatever,” Smart said on Nov. 9. “But so many of them are freaky deals. … That’s part of the game.”

No. 2 in the SEC East, Georgia doesn’t control its postseason prospects for the first time in four years. While Alabama and Florida are poised to compete for the conference title on Dec. 19, the Bulldogs could find themselves in Columbia, Missouri, making up their postponed game against the Tigers. And it’s not only because of COVID-19.

From poor quarterback play to missed opportunities and mounting injuries, non-pandemic problems have also kept Georgia football from meeting its College Football Playoff expectations.

“I don’t make excuses,” Smart said after the Florida game. “I’m not going to say the sky’s falling. … We’ve got to get our players to play better.”