ATLANTA – Rising COVID-19 numbers have Georgia coach Kirby Smart concerned as the No. 11 Bulldogs prepare for Friday’s Peach Bowl game against No. 6 Cincinnati.
Smart said four players, including defensive standouts Eric Stokes and Monty Rice, will miss the game due to opting out for the NFL draft or injury concerns. Meanwhile, the defense could be bolstered if safety Richard LeCounte and tackle Jordan Davis return from injuries.
It’s the unknown — who might test positive or be ruled out due to contact tracing — that causes Smart anguish.
“Thrill a minute,” Smart said dryly on Monday when asked about his team’s status with COVID-19 testing results.
“We’ve had good information, bad information, information that changed,” he said. “It’s been a struggle. I can say that. That’s really all I can say about it. I’m not going to get into details. We’ve had our issues.”
Georgia avoided serious problems with players testing positive during the regular season. Smart said rising positive tests in Athens and on the University of Georgia campus are cause for concern.
Georgia’s final regular-season game against Vanderbilt was canceled after the Commodores’ roster fell below minimum requirements due to COVID-19 problems. On Sunday, the Music City Bowl between Iowa and Missouri was canceled because the Tigers had too few players available.
There is no apparent imminent threat of the Bulldogs being unable to play against Cincinnati. Smart wouldn’t say his team will be without any player due to COVID-19 testing.
The increased volatility of the situation, and the potential for problems before Friday, are cause for the increased nerves.
“It just changes every day,” Smart said. “... I’m just saying we’ve dealt with a lot of things, a lot more things here recently, than we have in the past.”
Cincinnati coach Luke Fickell said the Bearcats have not had any player opt out of the game. He said “we’re in a good place” with COVID-19 testing but said he’s also wary of changes before the game.
“It’s still early,” Fickell said. “You say that, you start trying to find something to knock on and different things like that because it’s one of those things you just cannot relax on. We’re continuing to do what we do. I think we’re basically going to be testing every single day, still asking our guys to make sacrifices. You just never know. One bad day can lead to a lot of different things.”
Georgia players were to be tested on Saturday, when players returned from a Christmas break, Monday and Wednesday.
Smart said his Bulldogs are facing three opponents: “Cincinnati, Cincinnati and COVID.”
He said a season of dealing with the coronavirus pandemic has been stressful.
“It would be hard for me to imagine people being able to handle another year like this year back-to-back,” Smart said. “... I don’t know what the threshold is for what you can deal with in a season and stay sane. We’ve stretched that rubber band about as far as you can. The elasticity is ready to break in terms of what you can withstand to have a season.”
Stokes has announced he is skipping the game to prepare for the NFL draft, protecting his position as a possible first-round selection.
Smart says offensive guard Ben Cleveland, who was named a third-team AP All-America pick on Monday, Rice and tight end Tre McKitty also will not play.
LeCounte is practicing and trying to play for the first time since suffering shoulder and ribs injuries in a motorcycle accident on Oct. 31. Davis has been out since suffering an elbow injury against Kentucky, also on Oct. 31.