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Former Ole Miss head coach and new Georgia offensive line coach Matt Luke watches the Bulldogs practice this past weekend inside the Superdome in preparation for Wednesday night's Sugar Bowl against Baylor.

Since Georgia's 37-10 loss to LSU in the Southeastern Conference championship game, the Bulldogs have lost their offensive line coach and three starting offensive linemen.

Which should make for a very interesting Sugar Bowl on Wednesday night against Baylor.

Sam Pittman, who joined Kirby Smart's first staff in Athens after serving as the offensive line coach at Arkansas, returned to the Razorbacks earlier this month as a surprising head-coaching hire. Pittman helped Georgia land elite tackle signees Andrew Thomas and Isaiah Wilson in 2017, but Thomas and Wilson have elected to skip the Sugar Bowl as well as their remaining eligibility to focus on careers in the NFL, with Thomas a projected top-10 pick in April's draft.

Another surprise in this turnover involves starting right guard Ben Cleveland, a redshirt junior who didn't travel to New Orleans following a report before Christmas that he was academically ineligible for the bowl.

"This is a huge statement game, especially for the offensive line," sophomore Jamaree Salyer said in a news conference. "They have a great defensive front. A lot of people have been talking about our offense and how we can't do this or that. This is about what we do in the future, because our future is playing Wednesday."

Salyer started at right tackle for an injured Wilson during Georgia's second game this season, a 63-17 drubbing of Murray State, and he will make his second career start at that same position Wednesday. Fellow sophomore Cade Mays, who has played all five spots at various points this season, is replacing Thomas at left tackle.

Redshirt freshman Warren Ericson, who has played in five of 13 games for the Bulldogs as a reserve, is projected to start in Cleveland's absence, leaving sophomore center Trey Hill and redshirt junior left guard Solomon Kindley as the lone status quo starters up front.

"Andrew is a really good player, and he will be missed for sure," Bulldogs junior quarterback Jake Fromm said, "but Cade and Jamaree are ready. This is an opportunity that they've been working for, and they deserve it."

Georgia's offensive line is now under the guidance of Matt Luke, the head coach of Ole Miss the past three seasons who was fired several days after a dramatic 21-20 loss to rival Mississippi State on Thanksgiving. It didn't take a week for Smart to snag Luke, who worked with the Bulldogs for all of their on-campus practices for the bowl.

Luke is filling some big shoes, given Georgia's upgrade in talent and performance under Pittman.

"They're just different coaches," Mays said. "They're both great coaches who have been very successful, but they just teach stuff in different ways. They see the game in a different way.

"Coach Luke is very energetic. When we complete a deep ball in practice, he's running down the field and celebrating with the wide receivers. It's fun to see your offensive line coach doing that."

Mays amusingly admitted that he didn't know who Luke was when he heard his name as a possible replacement, adding, "I'm kind of in my own world, I guess."

Salyer knew Luke because he had been recruited by the Rebels.

"I just wasn't an Ole Miss guy," Salyer said. "I never took them too seriously. Don't tell him I said that."

Georgia will take the field Wednesday night without two of its top receivers — Lawrence Cager and Dominick Blaylock — due to injuries. Backup running back Brian Herrien didn't make the trip, and starting running back D'Andre Swift could be limited at best with a nagging shoulder injury.

Then there are the absences up front, most notably the sizable tackles.

"Those guys are taking that next step to the NFL, so this is our step to next year," Mays said. "We're Georgia offensive linemen. No matter who's in there, we're going to play hard and play physical.

"We're being doubted, so we want to come out here and prove people wrong."

Contact David Paschall at dpaschall@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6524.

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