Georgia football: UGA-Notre Dame among ‘highest stakes’ games of 2017

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Track: Small Stakes | Artist: Spoon | Album: Kill The Moonlight

High stakes for Georgia-Notre Dame

Chris Low and Adam Rittenberg of ESPN ranked the 10 college football games with the highest stakes next season, and the game every Georgia fan has circled on their calendar — Georgia-Notre Dame — comes in at No. 4 on the list.

No coach from a major program enters the season feeling more heat than Notre Dame’s Brian Kelly, who reshaped his staff — and himself — after a 4-8 fiasco that became a national punchline. While Kelly’s comments and sideline behavior make him an easy target for criticism, his main problem is an inability to win big games. Since beating eventual Rose Bowl champion Michigan State in September 2013, Kelly is 5-10 against ranked teams and without a win against a top-10 opponent. Georgia is a bit of a mystery under second-year coach Kirby Smart, but the Bulldogs are experienced enough — and possibly talented enough — to contend in the SEC. Kelly desperately needs this win, and to a lesser extent, so does Smart, who had only one notable win (Auburn) in his debut season.

With Kelly on the hot seat, the stakes are considerably higher for the Irish than for the Dawgs. After the debacle of 2016, Kelly needs high-profile wins — or, hell, just wins — to get Irish fans to put down their torches and pitchforks and get back to believing he’s a coach who can lead them back into college football’s upper echelon. He wouldn’t be fired for a loss to Georgia. But if a loss to Georgia begets a loss to Boston College and begets a loss to Michigan State, then he’s on a path to 4-8 again, and the school would have a lot of pressure from fans to run Kelly out of South Bend.

I’m not so sure that the stakes are high enough for Georgia for this game to be so high on the list, though. Yeah, it’s a hugely important game that could set the tone for the rest of the season. But unlike Notre Dame, whose endgame in 2017 seems is simply “be better,” Georgia has a specific goal in mind: an SEC East title. Even with a loss to Notre Dame, that is a completely attainable goal. In fact, losing to the Irish won’t even hamper it one bit.

That isn’t to say there’s nothing at stake for Georgia against Notre Dame. On the contrary, a win would be a huge emotional boost for the fan base. It would make fans once again believe that Georgia is capable of competing with the best in the country — even if it turns out Notre Dame isn’t much better than the 4-8 squad from a year ago. And it would build confidence within the team that it can go on the road and win at places such as Knoxville and Jacksonville. The stakes of the Notre Dame game have more to do with emotion and perception than whether Georgia has a successful season or not. A really good season is still possible even with a loss in South Bend.

I’d argue that the highest stakes game for Georgia, as far as whether the season is viewed as a success or not, is Florida, as it is most seasons. That’s the game that will have the most bearing on the SEC East race, and thus the game that will have the most bearing on Georgia’s season as a whole. There would be a lot of bellyaching from Dawg fans after a loss to Notre Dame — especially if you paid for a ticket — but I doubt it would create any existential crises in the fan base.

But coach Jim McElwain and the Gators once again beating Georgia on their way to another trip to Atlanta? That’s enough to throw the whole fan base into a full-on Chicken Little, “the sky is falling” panic. That’s what I call stakes.

Georgia football lays it on the line

Sam Pittman has been regarded as one of the best offensive line coaches in America since his days at Arkansas, so when he was hired it only seemed like a matter of time before he whipped Georgia’s line into shape. It didn’t happen in his first season, as the line was the weakest unit on the team. And although the offensive line won’t have much experience in 2017, it should have a considerable amount of talent. Especially when the touted group from the signing class of 2017 comes to Athens this summer.

With a full year behind him coaching UGA’s line, Pittman may have his line ready to turn a corner. Both size and experience are still lacking from the line — although the size is on its way — but according to Pat Allen, the likely starter at left guard, Pittman is teaching his unit to play smarter. From Marc Weiszer of the Athens Banner-Herald:

“Our eyes are up more and we’re able to understand defenses a lot better and that all goes to Coach ‘Pitt,’” said the 6-foot-4, 285-pound Allen said. “He really teaches us front, he teaches us rotations, those type of things. When we key in on those things, we’re able to make calls and adjust.”

We won’t know whether the line is ready to take a step forward until this fall, but right now all the right things are being said.

Former Dawgs rank among NFL’s top 100

As it does every offseason, the NFL Network is counting down the top 100 players in the NFL as voted by the players. So far, it has revealed players 61-100, and a few former Bulldogs have already popped up on the list.

76. Justin Houston

68. Geno Atkins

ICYMI

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