With the first game of the season just under a month away, enthusiasm and expectations for Kirby Smart’s third Georgia team are running pretty high, with the Dawgs getting a preseason boost by landing at No. 4 in the coaches’ poll.
Certainly, there remain legitimate concerns, stemming largely from all the seasoned, big-name talent that departed Athens after last season.
Still, Smart and his staff have an awful lot going for them, thanks in large part to the stellar job they’ve done recruiting over the past couple of years.
In fact, despite the personnel losses, Georgia’s 2018 team appears to be in much better shape than this time last season. Does that mean we should expect even more this year, say, an undefeated regular season? Some folks are on record as seeing that happening.
Does that mean another SEC title and another shot at the national championship? We’ll see, and they’re both on my wish list for the season. But, as optimistic as I am about the state and direction of the Georgia football program under Smart, I’m not quite convinced this is the year to win it all. Next year seems more likely.
Actually, I’d be thrilled if this year’s wish list fares anywhere near as well as the one I came up with last year.
As we approached last season, my wishes for the Dawgs included having two 1,000-yard running backs, an improved offensive line, much better production in the red zone on both offense and defense, at least one of the wide receivers breaking out, more imaginative and effective play-calling, and improvement on special teams. All those wishes came true, some in spectacular fashion.
I also wished for no more last-second heartbreakers, which had become something of a Georgia Bulldogs trademark in recent years. Things were looking pretty good on that front until overtime against Alabama, but, hey, at least it was in the national championship game, so I’m not going to mark that down as a complete miss.
Still, it gives this year’s team something to shoot for.
So, my wish list for this season? I want to see another 1,000-yard running back, and with a mostly experienced offensive line returning, that doesn’t seem like too much of a stretch. Georgia is loaded at the tailback position, but I believe the back most likely to achieve the 1,000-yard mark is D’Andre Swift. I’m also hoping Jim Chaney and James Coley continue to take advantage of Swift as a receiver in the passing game.
Overall, I’d like to see (and expect) a more balanced offense, now that the Dawgs no longer have the one-two punch of Nick Chubb and Sony Michel to rely on. Like last year, I’m hopeful at least one of the receivers will up their game to make up for losing the reliable Javon Wims.
I expect Jake Fromm to remain the starter at quarterback, and I don’t think it’s going out on a limb to think he’ll be even more effective in his second year behind center. Of course, there’s always room for improvement, and I think my wish for him is showing progress in throwing downfield.
Another big wish on my list is that, assuming Fromm remains the starter, the Georgia coaching staff will find a way to integrate incoming freshman QB Justin Fields into the offense without disrupting it, thus making opposing defenses have to prepare for both quarterbacks. I’ve heard a lot of folks debating the scripted series plan (like Mark Richt used when he had both David Greene and D.J. Shockley) versus the short-yardage third-down approach that Florida used with Tim Tebow when he played behind Chris Leak his freshman year. Personally, I think using Fields with a run-pass option in the red zone, much like Sony Michel and Mecole Hardman took snaps in the Wild Dawg last year, seems like a great option.
On defense, my big wish is that someone steps up in the front seven to fill at least some of the gap left by Roquan Smith. (Having Natrez Patrick pick up where he left off before suspension would be a great help.) I’d also really love to see the secondary, where several positions are open, solidify quickly. They’ll need to, with South Carolina’s Jake Bentley and Missouri’s Drew Lock coming up in the first month of the season, and both games on the road.
On special teams, having whoever wins the punting job perform at something close to the level of graduate transfer Cameraon Nizialek last season would be a wish come true, and I hope to see Rod Blankenship stay on track, even without the sage tutelage of Kevin Butler on the sideline.
And, then there’s the annual border war in Jacksonville. Last year, I’ll admit, I was worried as we approached the Florida game just because, well, it was Georgia in Jacksonville. We’ve seen Dawg teams with a decided talent advantage come a cropper there too many times. But, what we got instead was a thoroughly enjoyable romp over the Gators, one of the most fun Georgia-Florida games I’ve ever seen.
And, yet, somehow, the Gators apparently have convinced themselves that last year’s game really was “most definitely” closer than the score. As Seth and Amy would say, Really!?! So, this year, here’s hoping Georgia wins it in such convincing fashion that even those deluded folks in blue and orange can’t possibly have any doubts about what just happened.
Mainly, I want the Dawgs still looking hungry and not getting complacent. That would make it much less likely that they get tripped up by anybody they should beat (which is everyone on the schedule with the possible exception of Auburn).
The head coach thankfully recognizes the danger. “It’s human nature to relax,” Smart said at SEC Media Days, “and the last thing we need to do is relax.”
As for how the players will handle Georgia’s elevated status on the national scene after last season, I like what J.R. Reed had to say at the Media Days gathering: “The ultimate goal is to win the natty, and the SEC Championship doesn’t mean anything if you don’t win the national championship. So that’s where we are right now.”
If everyone on the team approaches the season like that, this could be another special season for the Dawgs.