UGA mailbag: Will Georgia rebuild or contend again in 2018?

Georgia-SEC Championship Game-2017-Auburn
Georgia's offense next season, led by Jake From (11), Terry Godwin (5) and Andrew Thomas (71), has a chance to be very good.

Welcome back to the UGA Mailbag, where every week ― every single week ― we enthusiastically answer all your questions about Georgia athletics, namely the football team, but also basketball and whatever else is on your mind. And I repeat, we do this every single week.

Now, a couple of notes: We haven’t actually done a mailbag in several weeks. Three or four actually. Maybe five. But otherwise it’s every single week we do this mailbag, and eagerly so, and will do so in perpetuity.

The second note: We will no longer do the mailbag every single week, starting next month. It’s probably going away for awhile.

But fear not! Here’s the plan: Instead of a weekly mailbag, we will switch to a daily format, one question a day, which we have decided to name, after weeks of brainstorming and focus grouping, the Question of the Day. I don’t need to tell you that the guy who came up with that got a huge raise.

Anyway, that new format will start in a few weeks.  In the meantime, we commit once again to doing this mailbag on a weekly basis, no matter what on earth befalls us, every single week for the rest of the month. So here’s the mailbag for this week, which I encourage you to read, because I haven’t decided if I’m doing one next week:

Should the 2018 season be viewed as a reload, with younger players gaining necessary experience leading up to a title run in 2019? Or do you view UGA as a legitimate contender once again? ― Mitch D.

A reload or another championship run … Can I choose something in between?

Georgia is still the prohibitive favorite in the SEC East, and there’s a whole bunch of talent still on the roster. But a whole bunch also left, not just in terms of pure talent but in veteran leadership. I wouldn’t underestimate that latter point.

Reasons for optimism for 2018: Jake Fromm, an offensive line that will be loaded with talent, good talent at the skill positions, Rodrigo Blankenship, and good pieces on defense (Deandre Baker, Jonathan Ledbetter, Tyler Clark, J.R. Reed, to name a few.)

Reasons for concern: The O-line loses its best player (Isaiah Wynn), whether the new skill-position players can be as good as Nick Chubb, Sony Michel and Javon Wims, the loss of impact players on defense, namely Roquan Smith, and a secondary that was leaky in 2017 and loses three starters.

Entering this season, the reasons for concern were offensive line (check), receivers (check), special teams (check), and whether the defense could go from good to great (check). Whether Jacob Eason would make a big leap was also a question, then he got hurt and Fromm made that leap for him. So, check. It all came together.

So look back on the reasons for concern in 2018, and if you can check all those boxes – and not have any unexpected backslides in the reasons for optimism – Georgia certainly can make another championship run. But once again, it has to all come together.

Seth–what do you think the Dawgs need to do to prepare to beat Alabama in the coming years? We know they are always a strong possibility to win the West and we will probably have to get past them in the SEC Championship game to have a shot at the playoff. I know that focusing on just this one potential game could be construed as taking all the others ones for granted, but for the sake of discussion …

I don’t think it as simple as just improving the talent level at all positions through recruiting. That will obviously help but from a game planning and strategic perspective, what in your opinion do Kirby and the staff need to focus on if and when we face Bama again? Just feel like this is something the Dawgs should plan for this offseason due to how difficult it is to actually beat Alabama in a football game. ― Harrison Thompson

I don’t know, Harrison. At first blush I think Georgia is doing the main thing it can do: out-recruit Alabama. At least this cycle they are. The advantage that Alabama has over everyone else is that it’s just better than everyone else because it stacks one great recruiting class after another.

Georgia is trying to do that now – and by the way, it stood man-to-man with Alabama in that title game  because of good recruiting. The last few years of recruiting under Mark Richt (with the help of Mike Bobo, Jeremy Pruitt, John Lilly, Bryan McClendon, etc.) saw some really good players brought into the program: Roquan Smith, Lorenzo Carter, Davin Bellamy, Isaiah Wynn, Nick Chubb, Sony Michel … basically, the nucleus of the team that nearly beat Alabama.

Now the hope for Georgia is that Smart is taking it to an even greater level. There’s really no secret sauce to what Alabama does. The underrated part of what Nick Saban has done at Alabama is his ability to adapt and always think ahead of the competition. That’s what Smart does too.

If Alabama had wiped the floor with Georgia, then I would have said that there are real concerns. But that was anybody’s game. Alabama just made the last play. Georgia is right there. The main question going forward – and I do believe it’s a question – is how well the talent on the team or about to arrive can replace Roquan Smith and the senior nucleus of this team.

Hey Seth, When does it stop hurting? ― Robert

I assume this is in reference to the National Championship Game and not the finale of How I Met Your Mother, which still ticks me off, and should every right-thinking man and woman alive. But you’re talking about the other thing.

This is an interesting question, because I’m actually curious how much it really has hurt for Georgia fans. There is so much optimism about the future, and this team was playing with house money anyway – winning the SEC East was the minimum goal, winning the whole SEC was gravy ― and then this team made the playoffs, won the Rose Bowl and nearly won the whole thing.

Paul Finebaum asked me about this when I was on his show earlier in the week, and I speculated that Georgia fans won’t really be able to gauge how much this hurt for another couple years. Perhaps longer. If this truly was the start of a great run for Georgia, then this may be shrugged off later, a championship that could have been won, but those two or three other things make it easier.

But if somehow Georgia doesn’t make it back anytime soon, this will be seen like the 2012 SEC championship. Many people still haven’t gotten over that, and I don’t blame them. The 2017 championship, on the other hand, seems to be a less bitter pill.

Maybe I’m reading the fan base wrong, but that’s how I see it.

Huge UGA/Kirby fan, but …

Is there a pattern of making critical mistakes at critical times?  I was at the TN game last year when they gave up the Hail Mary and, of course, the final play in the AL game.  Blown coverage probably costs UGA a Natl Championship!  Should the coaches call a time out, grab the players, and remind them of what to do in critical situations?  I know only have a few seconds between plays, but there might be a pattern developing that needs to be addressed to avoid another disaster. ― R. Fernandez 

The Tennessee hail mary and the Alabama championship-winning touchdown are two different, things, in my mind, though the personnel on the field is very similar, as are the coaches. Still, I don’t see a pattern.

The hail mary was clearly a breakdown, both of design and execution – there was no reason Lorenzo Carter should’ve been in the back of the end zone for the play – and I’m sure the coaches immediately put in a fix. (Everyone enjoying me dredging up that memory? You’re welcome!)

The Alabama play, on the other hand, appeared to simply be a case of the offense making a play and the secondary not making it. Dominick Sanders bought the eye fake from the quarterback for a split-second too long, Malkom Parrish didn’t jam his man, and that was it. I don’t think Georgia should have used a defensive timeout there. Alabama was reeling after the Davin Bellamy sack, and as a defense you’d have to think you had them where you wanted them.

Georgia defensive back Deangelo Gibbs. (PHOTO BY JEFF SENTELL)

Anything on the disappearance of Deangelo Gibbs at the end of the season? Can we still expect big things from him? ― Scott

I can answer only one of these questions with any surety: Deangelo Gibbs left the team late in the season for what was a “medical” reason. (Safety J.R. Reed, his cousin, used that term, as did other people in reporting the reason for the absence.) It was left at that, and we’ll leave it at that too until there’s more we can confirm. Frankly, I haven’t even confirmed whether he’s enrolled in school this semester.

When I did my way-too-early depth chart, I kind of hedged and put Gibbs as a second-team nickelback. If he’s fully back then he has a great chance to be a starter. He was contending to be one this preseason.

But will he be fully back? Right now it remains to be seen.   

Happy fun time basketball edition

Can this Georgia basketball team make the tournament playing the remaining schedule? ― Spencer Van Horn

Yes, and right now I’d put the odds at 50-50. In other words, like most every recent Georgia basketball season.

This team at least did what it needed to during the nonconference portion, earning two true road wins and three potential top 50 wins. But in a reversal, the Bulldogs are struggling a bit in SEC play, with the win at LSU on Tuesday night a good recovery after the bad home loss to South Carolina.

Georgia is ranked 46 in the RPI, which is normally right on the bubble, but the Bulldogs have four top 50 wins (Alabama, Marquette, St. Mary’s and Temple), which is something UGA has lacked in recent years at this point. So this team, at least on paper, is in better shape. The SEC also is better, which may make wins more difficult, but it means if Georgia can get enough of those wins – such as at Auburn (ranked ninth in the RPI) on Saturday, then it should be OK.

I always hate to set a specific number of wins needed to make the NCAAs, because it always depends on who those wins are over, and what other teams in the running do. As I always say, they pick the 68 best teams, rather than say if your team’s résumé is good enough or not. But if you pinned me down, I would say Georgia going 9-9 in SEC play would probably be good enough.

Lightning round

Any word on the 10th assistant coach? How many of the early enrollees can count against last year’s class? When will assistant coach turnover finally have a negative impact on Alabama? – LarDawg

From what I hear, Smart wasn’t in any hurry once the National Championship Game was over, especially since there was strong interest in joining the staff and no obvious place to put a new coach. A lot of programs are simply hiring a special teams coach, but Smart already has that. There was the thought of promoting Jay Johnson, but Georgia already has a quarterbacks coach and offensive coordinator, and if UGA’s administration will ante up to keep Johnson financially happy in an off-field role, then that would free up an on-field spot for a good recruiter. And we know Smart wants good recruiters on his staff, failing all else.

With Jacob Eason transferring does that take out the possibility of Fields redshirting? Are we in the same situation we were with Fromm redshirting months ago (many people may have forgotten, that was a huge topic for awhile)? – DawgNation7

Was there any possibility of Fields redshirting? I’ve never considered it, though perhaps that’s because by the time Fields committed it was becoming clear that Fromm was going to remain the starter and Eason was going to depart. That leaves just two scholarship quarterbacks right now, and I don’t see much need to preserve Fields’ redshirt. Maybe Stetson Bennett can function as an emergency quarterback, but I see a real competition between Fromm and Fields, and the 2017 quarterback situations at Georgia and Alabama should be instructive: You never know what will happen.

So you think Robert Beal will play a big role this year and maybe have a breakout year? – Eric Taylor

Well, first Beal will have to beat out D’Andre Walker and Walter Grant, who got a lot of playing time at outside linebacker this season. Maybe they have one of those guys play more defensive end, opening a spot for Beal. But there’s no hurry for Beal, with Walker being a senior and Beal having taken a redshirt this year, meaning he has four years of eligibility remaining. No rush.

Any word on who will replace Carla Williams as the Deputy Athletic Director? –BobcatGrad

UGA hired Darrice Griffin, who had been in a similar role at Massachusetts, on Dec. 20. The news got lost a bit in the shuffle with all that playoff and early signing period stuff going on. Griffin, like Williams, was a college basketball player in her playing days – Texas Tech, in Griffin’s case. (She graduated in 2007). Williams, incidentally, took over at Virginia in early December but still was on the Georgia sideline for both the Rose Bowl and the National Championship Game.

 And finally …

Forced to choose between these two, pick your favorite: Spandau Ballet or Rainbow. –Moos

Rainbow? Who’s that? Rainbow Brite? I have to go with Spandau Ballet because I’ve at least heard of them, and True is a good song. Or at least good enough to be sampled for PM Dawn’s Set Adrift on Memory Bliss, in which the lead singer of Spandau Ballet made a cameo.

Now, I suppose I could look up Rainbow on YouTube, but whenever that happens I end up going down a crazy YouTube rabbit hole that takes me way off track. And by way off track, I don’t mean way off the work track, I mean dangerously close to not being aware of things going on around me, including tornadoes.

UPDATE: I just broke down and went down the rabbit hole, causing this column to be posted hours later than it was supposed to be. Apologies to my editor. And anybody who also researched Rainbow. Oy.

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