As Mark Richt’s Bulldogs prepare to open the season Saturday, fans and professional prognosticators alike are dusting off their crystal balls to predict how the Dawgs will fare.
Talking with fans, I’ve found the predictions are all over the place. I’ve heard everything from “undefeated and national champions” (my brother Jon’s standard answer) to the woe-is-us-until-Richt-is-gone crowd, which cites the uncertainty at quarterback, wide receiver and defensive front as they envision four or five losses.
However, most folks I’ve talked with have been wavering back and forth between 10-2 and 9-3 for the Dawgs, and see them having a good chance of taking the SEC East.
I’ve spent the summer right there in that crowd, but now it’s time to settle on some predictions. So, here goes …
Record: 10-2 with an SEC title game appearance. Really, this is your fall-back prediction for most Georgia seasons of late, depending on the schedule. This year, the Dawgs replace a tough nonconference opener with a cupcake, but draw Bama in their rotating SEC West spot. While some might sigh at the idea of another 10-win season and see it as underperforming, seven teams on Georgia’s schedule have a legitimate shot at beating the Dawgs on any given Saturday, so 10-2 would mean Georgia beat five of those, which considering the question marks mentioned above wouldn’t be anything to turn up you nose at. Plus, going to Knoxville to face a resurgent Tennessee program the week after playing the Crimson Tide will be quite a challenge, and Auburn is always tough. If Georgia wins two of those three games, you’ll have to consider this a pretty good team. If they win all three, you’re definitely talking College Football Playoff contender.
Why 10-2? Georgia should have a solid defense and has the best running back in America, but, as noted, will have a new and possibly underwhelming quarterback, a new and possibly underwhelming offensive coordinator, and a receiving corps with a lot of young players and not a lot of height. My friend Scott sees 10-2 or 9-3, but is worried. “Given that a UVa benchwarmer has come in and beat out guys who have been studying the playbook for a couple of years, we might be overly optimistic,” he says. When it comes to the QB spot, I figure Richt and offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer think Greyson Lambert will make fewer mistakes than Brice Ramsey and has a bigger arm than Faton Bauta, so he’s the best option until the Eason Era begins next year.
Still, as my brother Tim points out, on offense “all we have to do is pass to the tight ends early and run the ball” until the receivers catch up. And, on defense, Georgia could well lead the nation in sacks, so if the run defense stiffens, there could be a Top 10 D in Athens. Overall, Nick Chubb is the difference-maker. On offense, what we may see this year is akin to Dooleyball: Chubb left, Chubb right, roll out and throw to the tight ends.
Losses: Basically, I see the Dawgs losing to either Alabama or Auburn (probably the latter) and also having the obligatory loss to a lesser team, most likely Tennessee because of the post-Bama spot on the schedule, not because I’m sold the Vols are really back. As my son Bill put it: “Tennessee is a little over-hyped, but that one just looks to me like a road game where they’ll be frothing at the mouth and our new QB/receivers/playcaller will not be up to it. Feels like South Carolina in 2012, Clemson in 2013, Mississippi State in 2010, Okie State in 2009, where a much anticipated home win over Georgia heralded a new era and a big season. We’re the wobbly giant everyone targets for their coming out party until further notice.”
But I think 10-2 still should be good enough to get Georgia to Atlanta for the SEC Championship. I’m going to reserve my predictions on how that would turn out for now, but it’s worth noting that it would be most likely Georgia would face either Bama or Auburn again in the Dome. Beating either one of them twice in one season would be a mighty tall order.
Offensive MVP: Easily Chubb, though Sony Michel also should have a great year as he gets lots of playing time midgame to help rest Chubb for the fourth quarter (a favorite strategy of this staff last season).
Defensive MVP: When you have the coaching staff trying to figure out how many positions they can use Leonard Floyd in, it’s a pretty safe bet they view him as their best defensive player. Best bet might be to just let him roam the field and make plays. However, Jordan Jenkins could also be a contender here.
Rookie of the Year (offense): Terry Godwin at wide receiver. If he develops quickly and Malcolm Mitchell and Isaiah McKenzie stay healthy, Georgia could be an offensive dynamo this season.
Rookie of the year (defense): Trent Thompson on the defensive front. Plugging that hole is the key to a Top 10 defense for defensive coordinator Jeremy Pruitt.
- Third-string tailiback Keith Marshall will have a 100-yard game at some point this season.
- The turnover margin is likely to be worse than last year (new QB and no five-turnover fest from Missouri to skew the numbers), but defense gives up fewer points so it’s a wash.
- Chubb has a great season, gets invited to New York but doesn’t win the Heisman as he isn’t a flashy new spread quarterback or playing for Ohio State. Plus he gets saved a lot more because of Michel and Marshall. Maybe in 2016, his final year with the Dawgs, he’ll take the statue.
- My son predicts Georgia loses one game this year “via insane stupid bad luck. Some combo of tipped pass, bad penalty call.” And I think he’s probably right.
- And, based on past history, you can safely predict Georgia loses one game this year thanks to a self-inflicted odd decision: a playcall that didn’t work out or, worse, a strategic error. As my pal Joel puts it: “Hate to be cynical, but it happens every year.”
- At the other end of the spectrum, Georgia pounds on at least two of the top six teams on its schedule, as it did last year.
- Despite the official “no plans” stance, look for the black jerseys to return against Kentucky.
- Georgia will see a quarterback (maybe two) transfer at season’s end.
Expectations: In looking at what will make this season a success or a disappointment, the baseline is winning the SEC East. If the Dawgs do that and make a good showing in the Dome (win or lose), and win their bowl game, I’d say you have to call the season a success, with 2016 looking even more promising. Win the SEC Championship and make the playoffs, and there’s no doubt 2015 will be considered a success. Even a 9-3 record that still sees Georgia take the East would have to be considered pretty good.
But anything less than winning the East will renew the debate about underachieving under Richt. The only scenario without an SEC East title that wouldn’t draw howls from the Bulldog Nation would be if it’s a case of losing the division in a tiebreaker to an Eastern Division team (like Tennessee), but otherwise going 11-1 or 10-2 with big wins over the likes of Bama and Tech and a Big 6 bowl win over a quality team (think beating FSU in Sugar Bowl or Michigan State in Peach Bowl). Under that scenario, with the Dawgs closing really strong, finishing in the Top 5, it would provide big momentum for 2016.
Must wins: South Carolina, Florida and Tech. These are not the three best teams on the schedule, but we don’t want to continue or start losing trends in these rivalries.
Those are my predictions. What do you think?
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— Bill King, Junkyard Blawg
Bill King is an Athens native and a graduate of the University of Georgia’s Henry W. Grady College of Journalism and Mass Communication. A lifelong Bulldogs fan, he sold programs at Sanford Stadium as a teen and has been a football season ticket holder since leaving school. He has worked at the AJC since college and spent 10 years as the Constitution’s rock music critic before moving into copy editing on the old afternoon Journal. In addition to blogging, he’s now a story editor.