Dawgs fans’ optimism is running high, despite question marks
One thing you always can be sure of with Dawgs fans: As soon as one season ends, they’re already looking ahead to the next one. Chatting with quite a few fans this past week, my question was simple: What’s your early take on the 2021 season?
“It’s funny you should ask,” Darrell Huckaby said. “I was just talking to my kids this weekend, and we were laughing about something that happened to us during spring break in 2011. Georgia had just finished 6-7 and lost to UCF, as you recall, in the Liberty Bowl.
“We were camping on Jekyll Island and left our campsite one morning to go on a bike ride. We were deep in the back of the campground and, as we biked to the entrance, it seemed like at every campsite people had new UGA flags flying and new UGA chairs set out and were wearing new Georgia sweatshirts.
“We all noticed at the same time and laughed, and I said, ‘Still undefeated between January 12 and Sept. 1!’”
Cynics might call this the infamous “Wait till next year!” syndrome — common among college football fans, particularly in Georgia. And, indeed, “That’s the way I feel every year,” Huckaby conceded, “but, really, I do feel great about next year.”
He’s not alone. Most Georgia Bulldogs fans have learned to temper their natural enthusiasm with a bit of pragmatism as they look forward to a new season, but the general tenor I found among UGA fans is extremely optimistic.
And, with good reason — while there still are a few Georgia players who haven’t yet announced whether they’ll return to the program next season, the majority of those decisions have been made, and the fact that quarterback JT Daniels, running back James Cook and defensive line stalwart Jordan Davis are among those coming back has a lot of fans excited. As does the arrival of the 5-star “quarterback of the future,” Brock Vandagriff.
Behind them will be the Dawgs’ usual strong group of running backs. We don’t know yet whether Zamir “Zeus” White will be back, but Cook, Kendall Milton, Kenny McIntosh and Daijun Edwards should more than suffice.
And, Georgia’s quarterbacks will have one of the nation’s most talented groups of receivers to throw to, led by George Pickens, Kearis Jackson, Jermaine Burton, Darnell Washington and Arian Smith, with Dominick Blaylock and Marcus Rosemy-Jacksaint due back from injuries.
Also, I like the mindset already being established by Daniels, Davis and other team leaders that the Dawgs have “unfinished business” to take care of. After a bit of backsliding the past couple of years, it’s time for Smart’s program to live up to the promise we saw in 2017.
Yes, there are concerns about having to replace last year’s starting secondary on defense, and there remain questions about how quickly a revamped offensive line will jell, but the overall talent level for Kirby Smart’s sixth season as head coach in Athens is pretty impressive.
As Huckaby put it: “The receiving corps is something to really be excited about. JT should be lots more mobile and comfortable in the offense, and even if Zeus goes pro, we will have a stable of backs. Great kicker and punter back, and the defense will be sound. I think it is so huge that Jordan Davis and Devonte Wyatt are coming back. I think it may foreshadow a special year, leadership-wise. I think Kirby has matured so much and is really growing into the job. So, as always, I am brimming with confidence. And the schedule, after the Clemson game, is very favorable.”
Jeff Dantzler, the lifelong UGA fan who hosts the “Dawg Talk” segments on the Bulldogs radio network, agrees.
“I think we have a chance to be really good,” he told me this week. “The biggest question mark will be the secondary, but looking through position by position, the rest of Georgia’s units look like they have the potential to match up with the best in the league.”
Larry Pope (who gave me my first journalism job back when I was in high school in Athens) thinks 2021 may bring the weakest season in memory for the SEC. “In the East, Georgia would be the frontrunner, with Tennessee and Florida and Missouri finishing poorly in 2020 and with modest prospects for improvement,” he said. “South Carolina is rebuilding (again) and UK and Vandy are, well, UK and Vandy.”
In the West, Larry noted, Alabama could lose three of the top five Heisman finalists, depending on what Mac Jones decides to do, yet Bama “remains the class of the league. Texas A&M must replace Kellen Mond to compete with the Tide. LSU and Auburn are in disarray and the others are .500 caliber teams.
“So, let’s say Georgia and Alabama for the SEC crown and maybe, just maybe, JT Daniels will be the difference. We can’t lose to Alabama forever, can we?”
Helen Castronis (whose dad was a longtime Georgia football assistant coach) also is encouraged by Daniels returning. “I feel a little like I did when Sony [Michel] and Nick [Chubb] announced they were returning [for the 2017 season]. The thought of going back to square one with a quarterback was very depressing. I’m old-school and like for a frosh quarterback to have a little time to get broken in. But I also hope Kirby has learned a lesson from losing Justin Fields and will play the young quarterbacks when possible, and particularly if JT struggles. The offensive line is a question — isn’t it always. But, I love that Jordan Davis is coming back. That is epic!”
Owen Scott sums up Georgia’s prospects this way: “I like Daniels; he’s got great receivers and excellent running backs. [Todd] Monken is an aggressive offensive coordinator, who produced more explosive plays. The defense should be very competitive. [Jake] Camarda and Hot Pod [Jack Podlesny] are first-rate. We should have a great shot at beating Clemson. Win, and only a depleted Florida stands in the way of yet another chance for Smart to be the first ex-assistant to beat Nick Saban. The offensive line coming together is the key.”
Doug Vinson is another very optimistic Georgia fan. He said he’s “quite excited about next year, especially with JT Daniels coming back — the offense is going to be a lot of fun to watch!”
Veteran Dawgs watcher Charlie Hayslett said he’s also “pretty bullish” since is Daniels coming back for another season in Athens. “He’s clearly a talented young guy, and Georgia was a very different team at the end of the season than it was at the beginning.”
Charlie is a bit more cautious when it comes to Vandagriff. “He’s coming out of a Class A private school; it’s a big step up to the SEC. That said, the Dawgs’ receiving corps is so good that either you or I could probably complete a pass or two.”
But, he added, as good a job as Smart does recruiting, “I’m just hoping that the next Justin Fields or Trevor Lawrence hasn’t found his way to the state line.”
Going for a younger fan’s view, I asked my great-nephew Gabe Rudd what he thinks about next season. Like a lot of fans, Gabe believes that “our biggest issue next year will be in our secondary, although we do get Kelee Ringo back from injury. We’re still losing a significant amount of our key defensive backs.”
By the way, Gabe, who has followed Vandagriff closely during his high school playing career, expects the quarterback battle between Daniels and the incoming freshman to be a bit closer than many might expect.
Joel Provano is worried about the defense, but very optimistic overall. “Wyatt and Davis returning is really big,” he said, “but cornerback is a concern. And it seems the offensive line is always a question mark. Otherwise, we are loaded. We can absolutely win them all. The schedule is not tough at all. Clemson and Florida are both winnable.”
Clint Ard is “super optimistic” for the 2021 season and sees Georgia back in the SEC Championship Game. Besides the returning talent for Georgia, he noted that the Dawgs’ two toughest opponents both will be missing key talent from the 2020 season. Clemson (Georgia’s opening opponent Sept. 4 in a neutral site game in Charlotte) will be without Lawrence and Travis Etienne (though they will have DJ Uiagalelei) and Florida no longer has its two Kyles, Trask and Pitts.
Plus, Ard added, Alabama won’t be on the regular-season schedule.
Scott Peacock, who thinks “having spring practice will be crucial,” is a bit more modest in his expectations than many Georgia fans. “While JT raised the offense’s performance, it’s clearly still far from a College Football Playoff-caliber offense,” he said. “Daniels needs to get in sync with the wide receivers and everyone needs to become more comfortable with the scheme. Defensively, we should be OK, but … our cornerbacks are going to be extremely raw. That’s a bit scary.”
At the other extreme is my brother Tim, who predicted this week that the Dawgs will win the SEC East “and play for the natty. You heard it here first!”
Which brings us back to Darrell Huckaby.
“I will tell you how excited I am about next year,” he said. “Last Saturday, I booked rooms … at the Hyatt Regency in Indianapolis for next January 7-11, 2022 — three blocks from Lucas Oil Stadium,” where the College Football Playoff National Championship game will be played next year.
“Wow,” I said to him, “that’s optimism!”
To which Darrell replied, “Well, full disclosure: There was no deposit, and I can cancel up to 48 hours before check-in.”
OK, that sounds like a pragmatic Georgia Bulldogs fan.
Georgia athletics has a new leader
Josh Brooks, the senior deputy director of athletics who had been interim AD since Greg McGarity left at the end of the year, quickly was named as UGA’s new director of athletics this week.
Considering the challenges facing college athletics departments in an era of declining attendance and uncertain finances — and as we’re still battling a pandemic — the continuity of having the new boss come from within bodes well.
We don’t know yet what sort of athletic director the 40-year-old Brooks will be, but I was encouraged to see that he recognizes the importance of the fan base.
“Our fans are the glue, the key of our experience on Saturday nights in Sanford Stadium or Stegeman Coliseum or Foley (Field) or any of our other venues,” Brooks said this week. “Making sure that they have a great experience is important — now more than ever. We are coming out of a COVID-19 world, where we’ve had people sitting at home. We’ve had restricted attendance. Some people may have gotten comfortable. We have to step it up in terms of fan experience.”
I’m excited to see what he has in mind.
Let me hear from you!
I’ll be answering Junkyard Mail next week, so email me at email@example.com to share your views of the just-concluded football season, offer your thoughts on the current basketball season or the next football season, or to raise any questions you have about UGA athletics.