ATHENS – When the SEC media gathers Tuesday to meet the Georgia football team, Jacob Eason won’t be among the delegation representing the Bulldogs. But the media will say, and hear, his name often.
Very, very often.
Kirby Smart will be asked general questions about his now-sophomore quarterback, and some will try to pin down the coach on whether Eason definitely will start. (Smart is likely to smile and repeat what he’s said about competition bringing out the best in everybody.)
Eason’s teammates will be asked about what they’ve seen in him this year in terms of increased maturity and knowledge of the offense, and how he’s handled the hype around freshman Jake Fromm.
Then later in the week the SEC will release its annual preseason poll, as voted on by the media, and Georgia will almost certainly be picked to finish first or second in the East division. And where each individual voter puts Georgia might depend on how they feel about that quarterback position.
The strengths of the team are established: two star running backs and a defense that returns all but one starter. The biggest concern points are also well-known: offensive line, receiver and special teams.
That leaves quarterback. Not necessarily a concern. But will it be a strength? It’s the question that could swing Georgia’s season, if everything else goes as expected. (Which it hardly ever does.)
Reminder: This is not purely a ranking of Georgia’s best players. It is an evaluation of which players are most vital to the team’s success in 2017 based on their own talent, the importance of their position, the depth at their positions, and the strengths and weaknesses of the team.
And now …
1. JACOB EASON
WHY HE’S IMPORTANT: The quarterback is almost always first on this list. Eason was second last year, and that was when it wasn’t even certain he would start. Nick Chubb was first, with his health a big unanswered question. This year we know (OK, we think) Eason is the starter, and we know Chubb is healthy. There are plenty of other players who could change Georgia’s fate in 2017, one way or another. But the most important is Eason. If he puts it all together this season, the way Matt Stafford did his sophomore year, that could lift the entire offense, which would lift the entire team. If Eason doesn’t take a major step forward this year, if he’s only a smidgen better than last year, then plenty else has to go right for the Bulldogs to improve their 8-5 record from 2016. And if Eason actually struggles and takes a step back, then it’s possible the team has to turn to a freshman quarterback, or a fifth-year senior with zero career starts. The biggest questions this year at Georgia are whether the offensive line improves and how well Eason plays. The offensive line is five men. The quarterback spot, we ultimately think, boils down to one player.
FACTOID: Stafford’s sophomore season saw a two-win improvement, to 11-2 and the Sugar Bowl. Aaron Murray’s sophomore year saw a four-win improvement, to 10-4 and the SEC East championship. David Greene’s sophomore year saw a five-win improvement, to 13-1, the SEC championship and the Sugar Bowl.
BEST CASE: Eason has the ability to make the same jump that Stafford made as a sophomore, even though Eason’s freshman numbers (2,430 passing yards, 16 TD, 8 INTs) were similar to Stafford’s sophomore numbers (2,523 passing yards, 19 TDs 10 INTs). So the better goal would be what Murray (3,149 yards, 35 TDs, 14 INTs) or Greene (2,924 yards, 22 TDs, 8 INTs) accomplished. If Eason has a 2017 season similar to either of those players, Georgia’s offense should take a big step forward. And it would go a long way toward the Bulldogs winning their first division title in five years.
WORST CASE: Eason might have been lucky not to have more interceptions last year; several poor decisions were negated by him sailing the ball out of the defenders’ reach. What if those balls are picked off this season? What if Eason is spooked by the competition, playing from ahead rather than from behind as he was last season? What if the offensive line struggles again, thus affecting Eason’s play and perhaps his level of frustration? What if Eason just isn’t all that good? What if last year wasn’t just a good start, it was just as good as he can be?
FINAL WORD: Brian Windhorst, who covers the NBA for ESPN, compared the value of a draft lottery pick to the value of a new car: As soon as you drive it off the lot, it loses a ton of its value. It’s the same way with 5-star recruits who play. When you play, and the more you play, the shine comes off the star, the bloom comes off the rose and so on. So that’s why you’ve heard some ruminations in the offseason, mainly from fans, about Fromm needing to get a real long look, or even senior quarterback Brice Ramsey. The suspicion here is Eason is more likely to be great than to be just average. But he still needs to prove it.