Slim Pickens no more?
Georgia's biggest play from scrimmage during its Southeastern Conference championship game loss to Alabama earlier this month transpired in the final minute of the first quarter, when George Pickens made an acrobatic, 37-yard snag of a Stetson Bennett pass that set up the contest's first touchdown.
It was the same George Pickens who many expected would never suit up for the Bulldogs this season.
The 6-foot-3, 200-pound junior from Hoover, Alabama, tore his right anterior cruciate ligament during a noncontact drill in late March, and he wasn't healthy enough to compete for the Bulldogs until the regular-season finale at Georgia Tech. Pickens had a 5-yard catch against the Yellow Jackets, but it was his 37-yarder to the Crimson Tide 8-yard line that has placed him among the more intriguing aspects to Georgia's Orange Bowl showdown with Michigan on New Year's Eve.
"He is still not 100%," Georgia coach Kirby Smart said this week. "George is working really hard. Getting to see him every day, he is working back to get that way, but he is not there. Nobody is. There is no person on Earth who comes back from an ACL and is back out there and running the same speed with the same confidence you would usually have."
Regardless of his production to this point, which includes three catches for 46 yards, Pickens could solidify his status as the best postseason receiver in Bulldogs history with a big night in Miami. He racked up 12 catches for 175 yards and a touchdown to cap Georgia's 2019 season in the 26-14 thumping of Baylor in the Sugar Bowl and had seven receptions for 135 yards in last season's 24-21 topping of Cincinnati in the Peach Bowl.
Pickens earned MVP honors at the Sugar Bowl, and a 51-yard catch in the Peach Bowl is his career long.
"George is a baller, and everyone knows that," redshirt junior tight end John FitzPatrick said. "He's going to make plays whenever he's on the field, and he's continuing to get better every day in practice."
The absence of Pickens most of this season resulted in two surprise leaders on Georgia's receiving chart - freshman tight end Brock Bowers (47 catches for 791 yards with 11 touchdowns) and redshirt freshman receiver Ladd McConkey (28 for 430 with five scores). Smart said that McConkey, the former North Murray High standout, has missed some recent practice time but should be fine for the bowl.
Whether Bennett makes a 10th consecutive start against the Wolverines or whether JT Daniels reclaims the starting role for the first time since September is certainly a relevant Orange Bowl storyline, but Smart isn't revealing substantive details about the topic.
Bennett ranks fourth nationally in passing efficiency behind Coastal Carolina's Grayson McCall, Ohio State's C.J. Stroud and Tennessee's Hendon Hooker, but he threw two interceptions against Alabama and was sacked three times.
"We are going to play the guy who gives us the best chance to win," Smart said. "I am really proud of the way both of those guys have practiced. We have done four or five camp-type practices and two that were really focused on Michigan.
"Both guys, Stetson and JT, have been really good in terms of being locked-in and really focused on what we need to focus on."
During the 41-24 setback inside Mercedes-Benz Stadium, Bennett had more fourth-quarter pass attempts (19) than he did fourth-quarter tries (11) the entire regular season.
Alabama coach Nick Saban revealed Monday that his program has implemented COVID-related safety protocols from a year ago, so Crimson Tide players are wearing masks again in the team facility and social distancing in meetings.
There has been a shift in that direction at Georgia as well.
"Wearing masks in the building is a big thing we have going on right now," junior outside linebacker Nolan Smith said. "Everyone thought we were done with the masks, and now the masks have come back. It's anything we can do to win games and keep our team safe."
Said junior defensive end Travon Walker: "It's by choice, but with the type of team that we have, a lot of guys don't even want to risk missing this game, because it's so big to us."
Multiple media outlets reported Tuesday that Daniels had tested positive for COVID, but Georgia had not confirmed that report as of Tuesday night and does not have any more media availability scheduled the rest of the week.
After reeling off the first 12-0 regular season in program history, the Bulldogs are coming off their first loss, so the talk of having the proverbial "target on our back" has been replaced by the "chip on our shoulder."
"I would definitely say we have a chip on our shoulder," redshirt sophomore tackle Warren McClendon said. "Losing the SEC championship definitely left a bad taste in our mouth. It's kind of refocused us and made us look at ourselves in the mirror."
FitzPatrick agreed, adding, "We don't want to make this moment bigger than it is, but we're hungry, and we're excited."
Georgia senior defenders such as nose tackle Jordan Davis and linebacker Channing Tindall had Mel Tucker as their first defensive coordinator in 2018, and juniors like Smith and Walker got to know Tucker in recruiting before he left for the Colorado vacancy. Tucker spent just one season with the Buffaloes before spending the last two at Michigan State, the only program this season to top Michigan.
"I've tried to talk to Coach Tuck, but Coach Tuck is a head coach now, so he's got a lot on his plate," Smith said. "It's not like I can text him here and there and that he can text right back, so it can take a couple of days before I can get a text back. He told me straight up, 'Ya'll should be able to go in there and give them a good shot.'
"Hopefully he's right, and hopefully the things we talked about I can transition over to how they played their game and how we're going to play our game."
Contact David Paschall at email@example.com or 423-757-6524.