The amount of motivation Georgia has for playing in the Sugar Bowl divided by the decrease in its available personnel, minus the level of competition that Baylor is going to bring to the Superdome will determine whether the Bulldogs win Wednesday night’s game.
Obviously, nobody can determine the quantity of any one of those integers at this point. The guys in Las Vegas spend more time doing that than anybody and they still had No. 5 Georgia (11-2) as a 5.5-point favorite over the seventh-ranked Bears as of New Year’s Eve. Then again, that line opened with the Bulldogs favored by 8.5 and 89 percent of the money was going down on Baylor, so extenuating factors seem to be trending against UGA.
That's probably a result of the daily discovery of another player or two who is not suiting up for the Bulldogs for this game. As of Tuesday, the number remains 13 Georgia players not playing for various reasons, most notably both starting offensive tackles, a starting defensive tackle, the starting free safety and possibly its star running back.
Georgia coach Kirby Smart is unapologetic about that. That, he said, is the cost of business for the Bulldogs these days.
“It’s not troubling, not at all,” he said of all the missing players. “Each one is different. Some of these guys are injured; some academically didn’t do what they needed to do. That’s part of college football. It’s part of dealing with the things you have, the cards you’re dealt. (With) the NFL environment we have, if we continue to recruit at a high level, which we’ve done, this is probably going to be an annual deal where guys decide that I’m not going to play in the game based on certain reasons or whatever they choose. And that’s the choice they have. I respect that.”
Conversely, as Baylor coach Matt Rhule reiterated Tuesday that none of his players are sitting out. But he doesn’t necessarily see that as a decided advantage for his side.
"With all due respect, Georgia's issue is not having good players," Rhule said during his half of the head coaches' news conference Tuesday at the Marriott Convention Center Downtown. "They've got good players up and down the board; I mean, they're fantastic. And I say that with the greatest of respect. Like, I haven't seen a team play as many guys they have so many good players."
There’s no question that Georgia is playing with a higher pedigree of football player. In terms of recruiting rankings, these two programs operate in different stratospheres.
Looking at the past four recruiting classes, which would incorporate the rosters of the respective teams, Baylor had an average national ranking of 36, with a high of 29 and a low of 40. The Bears’ best player this year, consensus All-America defensive end James Lynch, was a 3-star recruit.
The Bulldogs’ average ranking in the same span was No. 4. That disparity holds for the current recruiting cycle as well, with UGA’s 2020 class holding a No. 4 rating to Baylor’s 54.
The chief difference is that Georgia is selling its recruits not just on the collegiate experience, but also on preparing them for the NFL. When that comes to fruition in the form of top-5 draft expectations for players such as junior tackle Andrew Thomas and he’s not willing to risk injury in a glorified exhibition game, so be it.
“When we go recruit kids, we sell the fact you can get an unbelievable education,” Smart said. “We also sell the fact you have an opportunity at the NFL. When you recruit at a really high level, you're going to have kids with an opportunity to go in the first round that are going to make, quote unquote, business decisions for them. I don’t always agree with all of them, but I support them 100 percent. And that’s what we’re going to continue to do.”
But there is another reality that the Bulldogs have to deal with. Sooner or later, they need to win in the postseason. That hasn’t happened much of late.
Georgia hasn’t won a postseason game since its double-overtime victory over Oklahoma in the Rose Bowl at the end of the 2017 season. Since then the Bulldogs are 0-4, with losses in the College Football Playoff Championship game, the past two SEC Championship games and last year’s Sugar Bowl matchup against Texas.
Ultimately, those losses in the league title games prevented Georgia from making the College Football Playoff, which is the team’s stated goal every year. Falling short of that appears to have dampened the Bulldogs’ enthusiasm for anything else, even a bowl as prestigious as Sugar.
“It is not harder necessarily, but I feel like all the pressure is on Georgia to be great,” fifth-year senior Michael Barnett said. “We need to do better, to work harder in the offseason. Whether it is a practice, workouts, or training, you just have to go harder. When you think you are going hard, go harder. Pressure is a privilege. You just have to keep pushing harder.”
Smart said that has been Georgia’s mindset during what will be a 25-day gap between the last time it played and when it kicks off late Wednesday night. Because it has been relatively short on personnel, the Bulldogs have spent more time working “good on good,” as Smart calls it, rather than the starters practicing against scout-team players.
Georgia plays a lot of players as it is. But those who toiled as backups most of the season will get an opportunity to move into front-line roles on what is still a pretty grand stage.
“There’s only four teams that can be in the playoffs. If you don’t earn the right to get in there, then you deal with the cards you’ve dealt,” Smart said. “We're in a pretty good situation when you look at it and say you could win 11, 12 games every year, have an opportunity to play in a New Year’s Six bowl game every year, you’re doing something right. Our kids recognize that. That doesn’t take away from the disappointment of not making the playoff. But you can’t whine and cry over that, not for very long.”
That said, how well the Bulldogs play Wednesday night and how motivated they might be, nobody really knows.