In an unusual season like no other, Georgia’s players could have opted-out like many others across the country without penalty, but that hasn’t been the case.
The Bulldogs have faced a roller-coaster of a season.
In the season opener, the once was the best option at quarterback (after Jamie Newman) laid an egg on the first six drives, and a fourth-string, that was told he wouldn’t ever play at the Division I level, came in and saved the day. That of course was South Georgia native Stetson Bennett, who looked good early on and led the team through the next two games, until the Bulldogs had their date with Alabama.
The junior signal-caller struggled for the first time and Georgia suffered its first loss of the season. That led to many questioning why head coach Kirby Smart stuck with Bennett so long, while the most heralded quarterback to come through Athens since Matthew Stafford sat on the sideline. Of course, that was Southern Cal transfer J.T. Daniels, who had been cleared to play coming off two surgeries to repair his knee, but the coaching staff felt like he wasn’t ready just quite yet.
That’s when Georgia’s matchup against Kentucky was moved back a week due to COVID-19 precautions. In that game, the Bulldogs suffered several key injuries, including defensive linemen Jordan Davis and Julian Rochester. Georgia escaped Lexington with a 14-3 victory, but that night senior safety Richard LeCounte was involved in a motorbike incident. At that point, that day seemed to change the trajectory of Georgia’s season.
Georgia started off strong against Florida and then ultimately fell flat as Kyle Trask picked apart the defense. The Bulldogs had several chances to come back, but neither Bennett nor D’wan Mathis could hit a player in stride. Senior defensive back Mark Webb also dropped a potential pick-six late in the fourth quarter. The absence of LeCounte, Davis and Rochester showed as the pass rush was nonexistent, and the invention of the wheel route propelled Florida to a 44-28 win.
After that loss, Georgia’s season was in peril; they had two losses to the best teams on their schedule. A fourth consecutive trip to Atlanta for the SEC Championship was out of reach and a College Football Playoff berth now seemed like a dream. That situation could have caused many players to back out and opt-out of the season, but the Bulldogs kept chugging along.
One might ask: Why didn’t any players call it quits?
The answer might be because Georgia is coached to a higher standard. In addition, the ones with the most maturity and experience are also the ones to thank. Georgia’s senior class set the tone way back before players arrived back on campus in early June.
“To me, in life, you’re not going to be able to opt-out of that,” Smart said earlier this week. “You’ve got to go out and compete and work and challenge yourself, and that’s what these kids have done.”
Georgia’s top-three ranked 2017 recruiting class, nicknamed the “savages,” have molded into a tight-knit group over the last couple of years. This group has overcome a ton of challenges before the pandemic (and things mentioned above) but they continue to push through the pain to finish out their careers in Athens.
When these seniors were freshmen, they helped that 2017 squad finish with an 11-1 regular season record, win the SEC Championship, and beat Heisman winner Baker Mayfield and Oklahoma in the Rose Bowl. Then, play in the National Championship game just to lose in overtime to Alabama. These seniors appeared in three consecutive SEC Championships and two straight New Year’s Six bowls.
On Saturday, this group will walk out onto the field and have their names called for the last time in Sanford Stadium as Georgia prepares to take on Vanderbilt at 4 p.m. EST. This weekend will be a bittersweet end for a senior class that has a chance to make a name for themselves and be the winningest class in program history.
Georgia inside linebacker Monty Rice thinks that achievement would be unique.
“If we’re able to achieve that, then that’ll be great and something that I’ll come back years later and be like, ‘We did that. The senior class, me, Malik, Rich, we were able to get that done,’” Rice said.
If Georgia were to win their final two regular season games, plus the bowl game, this senior class would have collected 45 wins, which would be the highest of any other in program history.
Rice has dealt with a nagging foot injury this season, although he’s played through the pain. Currently, he is the second on the team in tackles, despite playing a limited amount of time since the loss at Alabama. According to him, he’s just happy with the path he took out of high school.
“It’s a blessing. The time here has flown by,” he said. “I have appreciated it. It has been special from the beginning to the end.”
This senior class has nothing to hold their heads over because they have accomplished so much in just a short amount of time. The “savages” led the way and were the adhesive that held this team together throughout the offseason, but also during the season as well. There are a lot of names like Rice, LeCounte and Eric Stokes who get all the credit. Although there a few players like Nate McBride and Malik Herring who also contribute in different ways.
Smart said that he is very proud of his first true signing class at Georgia.
“They work really hard each day and I think they want to leave a legacy of being the winningest senior class to ever come out of here,” Smart said. “That’s a feather they want to stick in their hat. To do that, they’ve got to finish this thing off right.”