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Georgia coach Kirby Smart and quarterback Jake Fromm are two big reasons why the Bulldogs should be expected to be back in Atlanta for the SEC Championship Game in 2018.

Crystal Ball says another big year ahead for Kirby Smart’s Georgia Bulldogs

Chip Towers

ATHENS – The “way-too-early” prediction has become quite a fad in college football. Everywhere you turn there are already top 25 predictions for 2018, national champion predictions, conference champs, what have you.

I get it. We love college football around here. We can’t get enough of it, and it’s never too early to start talking about it, or never too late to stop. So, this is going to be my attempt at that. I’ve perused Georgia’s schedule for next season and done just enough research on the Bulldogs’ opponents to be dangerous. But I can’t offer enough qualifiers when I say, well, this is really way too early to predict.

That said, I expect Georgia to return to the SEC title game in 2018 and face Alabama this time in what will be a rematch of the College Football Playoff championship. It’s my understanding that SEC refs will, in fact, officiate, so the Dawg Nation should at least feel good about that.

Alas, it won’t produce a different result. Georgia will fall short again against Alabama, this time for the conference championship.

But fear not. The loss won’t be a season killer for the Bulldogs. They’ll still get into the CFP Playoff for a second straight year. That means there will be two SEC teams in the final four for a second straight season, which will probably initiate the dismantling of the current CFP agreement and an expansion to an eight-team playoff, lest other conferences and teams continue to be offended.

I digress. Georgia will get bumped out in the semifinals this time and will head home to Athens with an 11-3 record. Kirby Smart’s gift-wrapped national championship for his alma mater will have to wait another year.

At least, that’s what I’m thinking at the moment. I reserve the right to change my opinion between now and, say, the G-Day Game. At least by then we all will get a chance to see some of these Bulldogs in action for the first time. And there might be a lot of players seeing their first action.

So, on what am I basing this way-too-early-prediction? Three things mainly: Georgia having an established quarterback/offense, good special teams and a manageable schedule. Anybody who has taken a gander at the Bulldogs’ 2018 slate of games will probably come to the same conclusion as I did — “pretty easy.” Well, anybody not named Kirby Smart.

That said, as always, it will come down to a few key games. Let’s discuss those here:

Sept. 8 at South Carolina

Anybody who has followed Georgia for any length of time can probably tell you to beware any time the Bulldogs have to go over to Columbia to face the Gamecocks in an early season game. It has been in hot early September games when Georgia has suffered many of its 18 all-time defeats to South Carolina. This year the Bulldogs get Will Muschamp’s Gamecocks in Week 2 after October and November tilts the last two years. And the home team will have played only the Coastal Carolina Chanticleers at that point, so their traditional early season optimism should be well intact. So will be South Carolina’s offense, which returns virtually everybody from 2017, including quarterback Jake Bentley and wide receiver Deebo Samuels. The Gamecocks are a different team without Samuels, who missed most of 2017 with a broken leg. They lost some talent on defense, but will be stout at linebacker with T.J. Brunson and Bryson Allen Williams back in the fold. This game will be billed by whatever television network gets it as the Battle to Become SEC East Frontrunner. I’ve got Georgia eking out a close one, but expect it to be harrowing and gritty as these games at Williams-Brice usually are.

  • Georgia 2-0, 1-0 SEC.

Sept. 22 at Missouri

There will be some who scoff at this being key game for the Bulldogs, but I firmly believe it will be. Georgia’s defense, in for a rebuild in 2018, surely will get a stern test from the Tigers, led by quarterback Drew Lock and a three-headed monster at running back between Ish Witter, Damarea Crockett and Larry Roundtree. The offensive line returns intact as well. Fortunately for the Bulldogs, receiver J’Mon Moore is not among the returnees. He had a pair of 63-yard TD catches against Georgia last year in Athens and allegedly is still running free down East Campus Road. But the Tigers will have their resident number of play-making pass-catchers, along with a good dose of confidence after the six-game winning streak to end this past season. Mizzou will also have its resident defensive issues, as well, so expect another offensive shoot-out like last year’s 53-28 win by the Bulldogs. Fortunately for Georgia, it should have some firepower, too.

  • Georgia 4-0, 2-0 SEC.

Oct. 13 at LSU

Television hasn’t been set for this one and won’t be for quite some time. But odds are it will be at night and you know what they say about playing LSU at night in Baton Rouge. That said, these haven’t been those traditional SEC West powerhouse Tigers for a little while. Now in their second year under Ed Orgeron, LSU has lost at least three games every season since 2012, and they’re projected to be much the same in 2018. Orgeron hasn’t done much to change the culture and the Tigers face many of the same issues this season they have recently. That is, they still don’t know who the quarterback is going to be, they’re on their third offensive coordinator in as many years and Steve Ensminger has been described as a retread. And while they’ve always been able to count on great running backs, there’s not necessarily a great one waiting in the wings for Derrick Guise like there was for Leonard Fournette and Jeremy Hill. That said, LSU’s defense should be strong as usual and that will be what it hangs its hat on. Often that has been enough playing in the place the locals call Death Valley.

  • Georgia 6-1, 4-1 SEC

Oct. 27 vs. Florida in Jacksonville

The Bulldogs rolled over the Gators 42-7 last year, and it had been a decade since we’d witnessed Georgia win in a rout in the Cocktail Party. Not coincidentally, Florida fired Jim McElwain that Monday and the Gators are now under new leadership in Dan Mullen. Mullen most recently was at Mississippi State, where he did a formidable job under difficult circumstances, but his glory days in coaching were spent as Urban Meyer’s offensive coordinator at Florida. So he knows his way away around the Sunshine State, and that is being validated on the recruiting trail as the Gators are having their best year ever right after a coaching change. However, Florida is still facing a lot of the same problems that got McElwain fired and Muschamp before him. They still don’t have a proven quarterback or any established stars at receiver or running back. The hope is Georgia native Emery Jones, a late Ohio State flip, will be the answer at QB. The defense will be under the guidance of Todd Grantham, who the Bulldogs have lit up each time they’ve met him since he left Athens. Smart has never lost to a Mullen-coached team, and I don’t expect that to change this year at least.

  • Georgia 7-1, 5-1 SEC.

Nov. 10 Auburn at Georgia

Looking across the conference, teams with established starting quarterbacks generally have the most promising prospects. That’s definitely the case with Auburn, which returns Jarrett Stidham after a sophomore season in which he passed for more than 3,000 yards and got the Tigers enticingly close to major success. Of course, it was Georgia that kept the Tigers from making 2017 a truly special season, defeating them 28-7 in the SEC Championship Game and sending Auburn to the Peach Bowl rather than the playoffs. The Tigers, who lost to Central Florida in that bowl game, open 2018 against Washington in the Chick-fil-A Kickoff Classic, giving them three straight games at Mercedes-Benz Stadium. That’ll likely do it for Auburn in that building for a while. The Tigers haven’t won in Sanford Stadium since 2005 and even that one required some flukish, last-second antics to pull off. Georgia will be playing to clinch its sixth Eastern Division championship, and it will, in a shoot-out.

  • Georgia 9-1, 7-1 SEC.

And that’s the way I see it right now. The Bulldogs wrap up the 2018 regular season with home games against UMass and Georgia Tech. But UGA will get through unscathed. The Yellow Jackets likely will give Georgia hell at Sanford Stadium like they usually do, but look for the Bulldogs to retain the Governor’s Cup and finish the season undefeated at home for the second straight season with an 11-1 record and top-5 national ranking.

All possibilities again should be in play. But in a transition year and without all those seniors leading the way, it’s hard to imagine Georgia capturing lightning in a bottle again the way it did last season.

Then again, who among us was expecting that this time last year?

The complete schedule:

Sept. 1 — Austin Peay

Sept. 8 — at S. Carolina

Sept. 15 — Middle Tennessee

Sept. 22 — at Missouri

Sept. 29 — Tennessee

Oct. 6 — Vanderbbilt

Oct. 13 — at LSU

Oct. 27 — vs. Florida (in Jacksonville)

Nov. 3 — at Kentucky

Nov. 10 — Auburn

Nov. 17 — UMass

Nov. 24 — Georgia Tech

Dec. 1 — SEC Championship vs. Alabama

L Jan. 1 —  CFP Semifinal