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Georgia photo by Perry McIntyre / Georgia fifth-year senior right guard Ben Cleveland is motivated for a strong final season with the Bulldogs after being academically ineligible for January's Sugar Bowl.

Georgia's 26-14 defeat of Baylor in last season's Sugar Bowl was relatively bland compared to other recent postseason showdowns involving the Bulldogs.

It did not contain the heart-stopping excitement of the Rose Bowl victory over Oklahoma after the 2017 season, nor did it involve the surprising ineptitude of the Sugar Bowl loss to Texas the following year. Last season's bowl may be remembered more for who didn't play for coach Kirby Smart, with starting tackles Andrew Thomas and Isaiah Wilson skipping out to focus on their NFL careers, and with running back D'Andre Swift making the trip to New Orleans only to receive one carry.

Another Georgia offensive lineman, right guard Ben Cleveland, couldn't compete against the Bears due to academic ineligibility.

"That's definitely not a situation I want to put myself in again," Cleveland said on a recent Zoom call. "I've buckled down in the classroom and passed 18 hours in the spring and passed 12 hours this summer, and it was one of those hard-learned lessons. I had to learn to get it together."

The 6-foot-6, 335-pound fifth-year senior from Toccoa, Georgia, has much to be proud of when it comes to his playing career in Athens. He broke through as the starting right guard as a redshirt freshman in 2017, when the Bulldogs won their first Southeastern Conference championship in 12 years and came within a whisker of their first national title since 1980.

Yet Cleveland is quite candid when discussing the lack of pride for his academic endeavors.

"Parts of me sometimes wish I had taken school a little bit more serious, because it obviously has taken me so long to get a degree," Cleveland said. "I should have had that a couple of years ago. The relationships, though, that have been built will never be able to be replaced with all these guys, and I appreciate everything that the coaches have done for me the last five years.

"A lot of good relationships have been made over these last few years, and I'm sure they will continue to carry on."

Cleveland developed bonds with three former teammates up front — Isaiah Wynn, Thomas and Wilson — who went on to become NFL first-round selections. He is now the senior citizen of Georgia's roster, having enrolled in January 2016 along with the likes of quarterback Jacob Eason and tight end Isaac Nauta before redshirting that year, but what hasn't come as easy is developing relationships with Bulldogs freshmen.

"It's been kind of tough hanging out because of all the COVID stuff going on," Cleveland said. "It's tough to get 30 guys together at somebody's house or something like that. You try to develop relationships out on the field in practice, but that's not always the best situation.

"We've got to do what we can, because at the end of the day, these guys are family."

Cleveland will enter his final season with 42 career appearances and 16 starts. Trey Hill returns as the starting center, and left tackle Jamaree Salyer has significant experience as well, but the rest of assistant coach Matt Luke's linemen will be new to the starting scene when the Bulldogs kick off their 10-game SEC schedule a week from Saturday at Arkansas.

"I'm pleasantly surprised about where we are right now," Cleveland said. "It was difficult not having spring ball, which put a lot of stress on us to go learn a new offense and pick up on everything in a lot shorter time than we would normally have. Our guys have handled that pretty well, and we're progressing every single day.

"I actually think we're way ahead of where most people would think we would be right now."

 

SEC policy released

The SEC on Friday announced its policies and parameters for COVID-19-related football game cancellations. A minimum threshold of at least 53 scholarship players must be available to participate, including seven offensive linemen, four defensive linemen and one quarterback, though the impacted program has the option to play with fewer than those minimums if it elects to do so. Otherwise, upon approval by league commissioner Greg Sankey, the game would be rescheduled or declared a no contest.

Contact David Paschall at dpaschall@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6524. Follow him on Twitter @DavidSPaschall.

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