Georgia's Kirby Smart discusses Cincinnati, opt-outs and injuries ahead of Peach Bowl

Hunter Dyke | Mizzou AthleticsGeorgia head coach Kirby Smart. Mizzou Tigers vs. Georgia Bulldogs at Memorial Stadium in Columbia, Mo. on Saturday, Dec. 12, 2020.

Georgia will take the field one last time this season against an undefeated Cincinnati in the Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl in Atlanta on Jan. 1. In a virtual press conference on Saturday, head coach Kirby Smart discussed the magnitude of the highly anticipated meeting with the Bearcats, rumored opt-outs, injury updates and COVID-19 precautions.

Bearing down for the Bearcats

Georgia will make its fourth-straight New Year’s Six bowl appearance in the Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl on Jan. 1 against the Bearcats. Cincinnati will be looking to prove its worth after being left out of the College Football Playoff despite a perfect record.

Smart recognizes Cincinnati's talent and effectiveness across the board. The Bulldogs have one game week left to prepare, which Smart said will start tomorrow.

“The more I’ve looked at Cincinnati, I’ve got a tremendous amount of respect for Luke Fickell and the team they’ve got,” Smart said in a virtual press conference on Saturday. “He’s done a tremendous job there, and they’re probably the most balanced in terms of being really good offensively, top-20, really good defensively, top-20, and then special teams the same way.”

One potential threat for the Bulldogs will be Cincinnati quarterback Desmond Ridder. Ridder has a 66.39% completion rate for 2,090 yards, 17 touchdowns and six interceptions this season. Ridder’s also Cincinnati’s second-leading rusher with 609 yards and 12 touchdowns.

Smart cited Ridder’s experience, and said experienced quarterbacks don’t make mistakes. Covering all of the Bearcats’ weapons, including Ridder, could be difficult for Georgia.

“He’s a much better runner than you give him credit for,” Smart said. “He’s long, he covers a lot of ground. He makes the right decision a lot … he’s just a really, really good football player.”

Opt-outs, COVID-19 and injuries

Smart shutdown whispers regarding certain players opting out ahead of the Peach Bowl. He confirmed that outside linebacker Azeez Ojulari and defensive back Mark Webb will play in Atlanta. Safety Richard LeCounte is also continuing to try and return after his motorcycle injury after the Bulldogs returned from Lexington, Kentucky, on Oct. 31.

Smart said cornerback Eric Stokes, linebacker Monty Rice, offensive lineman Ben Cleveland, tight end Tre McKitty and center Trey Hill will be absent due to senior bowl invites, injuries and NFL draft declarations.

All five are impactful on both sides of the ball, so the Bulldogs will have to find similar production via their next man up mentality, which they have become familiar with this season. Despite absences, Smart remains focused on those that will play, along with his “three main opponents” right now.

“Cincinnati, Cincinnati, and COVID,” Smart said. “I’m super proud of the guys that are [playing] and that want to finish it off, and that are committed to Georgia and finishing it off the right way.”

Georgia has also been planning in case COVID-19 hinders plans. Smart said Georgia has three hurdles to get through with three more rounds of tests before Jan. 1. The Bulldogs are continuing to follow conference testing protocol.

Smart said the team is “on pins and needles,” after a brief holiday break, especially regarding contact tracing, which he noted that nobody would be able to clear at this time. The staff has also planned protocol in case Smart tests positive.

“It’s an obvious concern for both teams,” Smart said. “We’ve dealt with it all year, but our numbers have gone up in the past two to three weeks … we know at this point forward, there’s no getting anybody back. So, if it’s the wrong position, from a depth standpoint, it could really attack your team.”

Finishing the drill

Smart said it’s difficult to accentuate the bowl experience since the team won’t arrive in Atlanta until the night before the game while avoiding doing things publicly all the while.

“There’s not a lot you can do to enjoy the bowl,” Smart said. “You’ve got to be able to enjoy the fellowship of your teammates and staying safe so that we’re able to finish off this season.”

Although Georgia doesn’t have the opportunity to compete in the College Football Playoff, the magnitude of this game is still prominent. Smart said that many spin the bowl game as a chance to build momentum for 2021, and look at it as “bloom or doom.”

Still, Smart said he’s not auditioning for next season, although some players will get significant playing time for the first time. At the end of the day, he thinks this is an opportunity to finish this season off right.

“What I want to do is play good, sound football,” Smart said. “I want our seniors that are in this game to go out on top … it’s an opportunity, it’s a reward, for our guys to go out and play a top-10 opponent, a team that has not lost a game all year … we want to play our best game."

Printed with permission from The Red & Black independent student media organization based in Athens, Ga.; redandblack.com/sports

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