The 5 biggest presents of 2019 for Georgia football and basketball
ATHENS — Georgia Bulldogs fans are pretty spoiled, relatively speaking, when one considers the high quality of the athletic programs in general.
Coach Kirby Smart has had so much success that UGA’s No. 5 national ranking and Sugar Bowl bid is considered a disappointment by some. This, even though it took a 4-1 mark vs. Top 25 teams to get there.
Still, it seems every time you turn around, another great player or coach is headed Georgia’s way, and facilities continue to improve.
Football, with the recent approval of the $80 million football building, can make up some ground on the five SEC football programs recently rated to have better facilities: Alabama, LSU, South Carolina, Texas A&M and Tennessee.
But as things are, UGA improved Sanford Stadium this season and made it an even better home atmosphere. That was one of the 2019 gifts ranked in this story.
The best present of all, however, was an Atlanta student-athlete who could have played at any school in the country — or anywhere in the world, for that matter — choosing to stay home.
The five biggest gifts of 2019:
1. Anthony “Antman” Edwards
Yes, it’s clear some Georgia fans simply don’t support basketball. But if they don’t go see Edwards, they are missing out. Edwards is a once-in-a-generation talent. He’s also another reason why UGA basketball is on the way up under second-year coach Tom Crean.
Not only is Edwards the most dynamic player to suit up for the Bulldogs since Dominique Wilkins, but this 18 year old carries himself with the sort of charisma and grace that will make parents want their kids to leave Stegeman Coliseum with his autograph.
Edwards, projected to be an NBA lottery pick, is the leading freshman scorer in the nation. UGA has opened the season 7-0 in home games and is 3-0 in games decided by 4 points or less.
2. Lawrence Cager
Who would have thought a graduate transfer from Miami who hadn’t caught more than 21 passes in a season could evolve into Georgia’s go-to target and multiple game MVP?
Cager showed leadership and toughness this season, in addition to turning in performances against Notre Dame and Florida that the Bulldogs likely could not have done without.
Cager’s 7-catch, 132-yard performance in the 24-17 win over the Gators makes him a lock for the rivalry game’s hall of fame.
Cager’s immediate success in the Georgia offense is also proof positive to potential transfers that Smart and offensive coordinator James Coley know how to utilize newcomers.
3. Travon Walker
Speaking of difference makers, this 6-foot-5, 290-pound true freshman served notice he would be a force to be reckoned with by opening the season racing downfield on the kickoff team.
Had anyone ever seen a player that big coming their way with a full head of steam?
Walker’s speed and athleticism made him a legit coverage man, and later, one of the top defensive line prospects in recent SEC history.
Walker came through with the game-clinching sack on Auburn’s Bo Nix, sealing a 21-14 win. Walker’s stock should only continue to go up on a Georgia defense that was the best in the SEC in 2019 and could be even better in 2020.
4. Matt Luke
The on-field results aren’t in, but the Luke hire could ultimately go down as one of the most pivotal of Smart’s head coaching tenure.
Smart has dealt with a whirlwind of turnover in the past year, losing experienced coordinators Jim Chaney and Mel Tucker, and then popular offensive line coach Sam Pittman.
Pittman, however, was more than just a position coach — he was a unifier, and the sort of personality that lit up rooms and left everyone with a warm and fuzzy feeling about themselves.
The Luke hire sent shockwaves across the country, proof positive that Smart had the sort of staff and program that a well-versed coach with options would want to work for.
Luke’s reputation as an offensive line coach and recruiter, along with the tremendous coaching minds he has worked with and around — Phillip Fulmer, David Cutcliffe, Rich Rodriquez and Hugh Freeze, made this a slam dunk.
5. Sanford Stadium Red LED Lights
Yes, those red lights, and the way they lit up Sanford Stadium was breathtaking and amazing.
It was hard to imagine anything outdoing Georgia’s win at Notre Dame in 2017 — the sequel never lives up to the original, right? Well, this time it did, and the environment had everything to do with it.
The red lights provided a memorable and artistic setting, and the crowd came through with the noise, triggering six Notre Dame offensive motion penalties in the 23-17 win.
Georgia should play every game it possibly can at Sanford Stadium, where the school’s beautiful campus and Athens’ downtown and night life provide a setting like no other in the nation.