ATHENS — Game week. Finally.
The Kirby Smart Era officially gets under way in five days. The Georgia Bulldogs will open the 2016 season on Saturday against North Carolina in the Georgia Dome in the Chick-fil-A Kickoff Game (5:30 p.m., ESPN).
Preparations will continue with Monday’s afternoon practice — UGA’s 25th of the preseason — but first the Bulldogs will conduct their weekly news conference. Smart addresses the media for 20 minutes beginning at noon, followed by player interviews. As always, DawgNation will be there to provide instant coverage and analysis.
Here’s what Georgia fans need to know heading into this week. …
1. QB announcement awaits
By all accounts, Georgia’s quarterback competition has been resolved. Over the last week, freshman Jacob Eason has been under center for every snap with the No. 1 offense in which the media was present. Reportedly, he was also the main man on Saturday when the Bulldogs practiced at the Georgia Dome. But all of that remains speculation until UGA announces it or Eason actually takes the field first against North Carolina, whichever comes first.
Georgia is holding its first weekly news conference of the season on Monday at the Butts-Mehre football complex. So the stage is set for Smart to make an announcement if he so chooses. Whether he will or not is uncertain. Last week Smart said both that Georgia will run the same offense regardless of who is quarterback, but also that he wasn’t interested in telling the Tar Heels what they most want to know.
Either way, it should make for some compelling back and forth for Monday’s noon presser.
2. Risky proposition
If Eason is indeed named the starter for the season opener, he must’ve really turned it on in practice the last week or so. Throughout preseason camp and heading into last week’s practices, Smart claimed that none of the three quarterbacks had emerged to the point of deserving to be designated the starter. In an even competition, it would follow that Greyson Lambert’s 28 games of college football experience would tilt the decision. But that’s not the way the information is flowing at the moment. One can only assume that the 6-foot-6, 242-pound Eason must’ve stood up well to every test once he was given a chance pilot the No. 1 unit, which was the case a week ago Saturday.
There are inherent risks in going with an inexperienced quarterback not only in a first game, but for the season. Matthew Stafford was the No. 1 recruiting prospect in the country when he came to UGA in 2006 and the No. 1 player drafted into the NFL when he left in 2009. However, he did not start right out of the gate. In fact, he struggled his first season (7 TDs, 13 INTs).
Nevertheless, it’s not that uncommon anymore to see SEC teams start freshmen at quarterback. In fact, 38 freshmen have started games at football’s marquee position since 2000, according to survey done by NOLA.com early last season. According to CBSSports.com examination, 15 QBs started more than half their teams’ games in a season since 1996. Their teams’ average record: 7-6.
There was Jamelle Holieway at Oklahoma, however. With Jim Donnan acting as offensive coordinator, Holieway replaced the injured Troy Aikman in the fourth game and led the Sooners to the national championship in 1985. He remains the only true freshman quarterback to lead a major college team to a national title.
3. Tailback teases
Also unconfirmed at this point is whether or not Nick Chubb will play in Saturday’s game. But, of course, that’s the worst-kept secret in the history of football. Anybody who has been paying attention these last four weeks knows not only has the junior tailback been present, accounted for and fully participating in all 24 of Georgia’s practices to date, he’s even being tackled. Chubb, who tore three knee ligaments last October, has actually reduced his protective wear with each passing week per the preseason. He has gone from a bulky brace on his left knee to smaller brace to a protective sleeve to, this past week, nothing at all. Even Chubb chuckles now when he claims he doesn’t know if doctors and coaches will allow him to play on Saturday. But he “wants to,” he adds.
Chubb will play. A lot.
4. What about No. 1?
No the real mystery — and where there could be a real strategic advantage for the Bulldogs — is in regards to the availability of fellow tailback Sony Michel. Georgia’s leading rusher from last season (1,161 yards) still has not been medically cleared to play since breaking two bones in his left forearm in early July. However, he has been extremely active and involved in the Bulldogs’ practices and preparations, just not subjected to contact.
Saturday will represent eight weeks since Michel suffered the injury in an ATV accident near Atlanta. That’s right on the number commonly referenced as needed to recover from a surgically-repaired broken arm bone. Of course, Georgia’s staff has to weigh the potential benefits of springing Michel on UNC on Saturday against erring on the side of caution. Conceivably, he could have two more weeks to heal — he won’t be needed against Nicholls State — and then you could break him out at Missouri in the Sept. 17 SEC opener.
Unquestionably, Georgia will make this decision based on Michel’s long-term physical and mental well-being. But a backfield with both Chubb and Michel in it would certainly be much more problematic for the Tar Heels and defensive coordinator Gene Chizik.
5. Dogs like Dome opener
After four weeks of preseason camp, the Bulldogs will be happy to hit anything not wearing red and black. But the fact they get to face a North Carolina team that won 11 games a year ago has their juices really pumping, especially in comparison to last year’s opening tilt against Louisiana-Monroe.
“Oh, yeah, everybody’s getting them butterflies in their stomachs,” junior outside linebacker Lorenzo Carter said Friday. “Game week is upon us. It’s hard to say you’re not excited, but you have to control it. It’s the first game week, so finally getting to go out and play somebody other than your teammates is exciting.”
This will be Georgia’s first game in the Georgia Dome since 2012, when they came up five yards short in a 32-28 loss to SEC and eventual national champion Alabama. It’s the Bulldogs’ first regular-season matchup in the Dome since 2011, when they lost to Boise State 34-21 in alternative uniforms.
Georgia will be wearing their traditional home-game garb, by the way, with red jerseys and “silver britches.” North Carolina will also wear its home uniform with the sky blue jerseys.
“It feels good, just knowing we’re going to be in Atlanta,” junior safety Dominick Sanders said. “For us, it’s like home. But just knowing you’re going to be in Atlanta and going be in the Dome and not be in fall camp striking each other — we get to strike another opponent — that’s the main thing: getting to hit another color.”
By the way, tickets are sold out and so are most of the downtown hotels. And if you can get into one of the premier properties, expect to pay $350 t0 $550 a night. The In the Life Atlanta Black Pride parade and Dragoncon are both being held downtown this weekend.