Trips to New Orleans are typically accompanied by festive moods, but that has not been the case in recent days for the Georgia Bulldogs.
Georgia players arrived Friday and have since been asked about those who will not be competing in Wednesday night's Sugar Bowl against Baylor. That list includes starting offensive tackles Andrew Thomas and Isaiah Wilson, defensive tackle Tyler Clark, safety J.R. Reed, backup running back Brian Herrien and possibly starting running back D'Andre Swift.
On Sunday morning, Bulldogs offensive coordinator James Coley and quarterback Jake Fromm took part in news conferences and were asked about all that went wrong in 2019. Georgia averaged 35.4 points per game in 2017 and 37.9 last season, but that averaged has dipped this year to 31.2 despite possessing veterans at quarterback and running back and a line overrun with size and talent.
"Everybody has talked about the play on the outside and the questions about Jake, but I have to do a better job," Coley said. "First and foremost, it starts with me, and I'm looking at myself hard and criticizing myself. We do have to put some pieces in place for a quarterback in the pass game. It comes down to players and how do you get your players to reach their full potential, and that's what we've been fighting all season long.
"You've got to score points regardless of the conditions or the injuries that you have. It's been tough, and ultimately that falls on me."
Georgia failed to reach its scoring average in seven of its eight Southeastern Conference regular-season games, with early thumpings of Murray State, 63-17, and Arkansas State, 55-0, greatly padding its offensive output. The Bulldogs are coming off their worst showing of the season — a 37-10 drubbing at the hands of LSU in the SEC championship game.
The Bulldogs entered Atlanta's Mercedes-Benz Stadium with top receiver Lawrence Cager, a graduate transfer from Miami, shelved with a season-ending ankle injury. Big-play freshman George Pickens was suspended for the first half against LSU for fighting against Georgia Tech, and then reliable freshman Dominick Blaylock tore his ACL in the first quarter.
Not having those three for a sizable chunk of the game revealed how Georgia's returning receivers from a year ago never came close to replacing the departed trio of Terry Godwin, Mecole Hardman and Riley Ridley.
"We were very different from last year to this year because of the departures of the receivers that we had who are now playing in the NFL," said Coley, who was promoted at the start of the year after Jim Chaney left for the same job at Tennessee. "We're different from who we were in the first quarter of the South Carolina game until now because of the playing of a player like Lawrence Cager. That affects the quarterback sometimes.
"Jake's performance when Lawrence Cager was in the game was something like a 71% completion rate for the season. When he wasn't in the game, it was a lot lower, so did he regress, or did his stats regress? I would say his stats regressed."
Fromm enters Wednesday night having gone five consecutive games without completing 50% of his pass attempts. He only had three such performances in his career before this current slide.
Against LSU, when the Bulldogs were at their weakest on the perimeter, Fromm completed 20 of 42 passes for 225 yards with one touchdown and two interceptions. Though there were early drops in Atlanta that would have kept that game more competitive, Fromm didn't want to place the blame elsewhere.
"There are things I wish I could have done better," Fromm said Sunday, "so it's hard to put an answer on one thing. It's never one thing. It's a lot of different factors."
Fromm has yet to reveal whether he will return for his senior season, adding Sunday that he will meet with his family after the Sugar Bowl to address that decision. He was asked about his draft assessment and other NFL-related questions but repeatedly replied that his focus was on Baylor.
Regardless of Wednesday's outcome, Fromm is already the first quarterback to guide the Bulldogs to three consecutive seasons with 11 or more wins.
"I've been around Jake every day, and I was his quarterbacks coach last year," Coley said. "If anything, Jake has become sharper because of the multiples he's had to deal with as far as new guys in the lineup, but it gets you at times. I think Jake is still the same Jake, and he has a great attitude."
Said Fromm: "This is an awesome opportunity to play in a big-time bowl. We're competitors, and we're ready to go out and play for four quarters."