This past season, Kirby Smart’s Georgia Bulldogs exceeded most fans’ expectations.
What about in 2018? Will Dawgs fans be slightly jaded by success? If Georgia wins the SEC East but doesn’t win the conference (and doesn’t make the College Football Playoff), will Bulldog Nation still view it as a successful season?
Considering some of the sky-high predictions out there for the 2018 Dawgs, some fans might consider merely winning the SEC East a letdown. But, if you take into account the many challenges that face Smart and his program this year — in what essentially will be a rebuilding season on defense — perhaps a readjustment of what we expect might be in order.
Georgia is losing a lot of talent: Departing Dawgs that Smart won’t be able to rely on this coming season include Nick Chubb, Sony Michel, Isaiah Wynn and Javon Wims on offense. Plus, Georgia will be without more than half its starters from a very good defense, including Roquan Smith, Trenton Thompson, Lorenzo Carter, Davin Bellamy, John Atkins and Dominick Sanders.
Of course, there also are good reasons for the Dawgs being a consensus top 5 pick in most early preseason rankings, including the No. 1 pick by Sports Illustrated.
Georgia’s embarrassment of riches at tailback in 2017 means the running game likely will remain formidable, even with Chubb and Michel gone. Speedy D’Andre Swift turned a lot of heads last season both running and receiving out of the backfield; Elijah Holyfield also looked promising, Brian Herrien is solid, and incoming freshmen Zamir White and James Cook are highly regarded.
And, while the Georgia offense will miss Chubb and Michel, quarterback Jake Fromm impressed a lot of college football observers as a freshman and likely will take on more playmaking responsibility as a seasoned sophomore.
Throw in the fact that Georgia may wind up with the nation’s No. 1 recruiting class, on top of the impressive haul from 2017, and you have a program that remains the class of the SEC East. Plus, the Bulldogs again will face a generally favorable schedule (though most of their toughest games look to be on the road).
CBS Sports’ early assessment of the 2018 season summed up Georgia like this: “Quarterback? Check. Running backs? Check. … Oh, and the SEC East remains soft. Pencil in the Dawgs for another trip to Atlanta — at least.”
However, UGA fans aren’t likely to lose their perennial worrywart status just because of one great season. In fact, I’ve heard quite a few major questions raised, the answers to which will go a long way toward determining what sort of team the 2018 Dawgs will be.
How much of a drop-off will there be while the defense is rebuilt? All areas of the defense will see new starters, and the linebacking corps, in particular, is losing a lot of tackles.
My brother Tim wonders, “Who can fill Roquan’s shoes?” And, he and my buddy Scott are worried about the secondary. Said Scott: “The kids we put there will have to be better than the more experienced players who departed, or there are gonna be more moments like the [end of the] National Championship Game.”
Let’s face it, there won’t be a “new Roquan.” But, if the defensive front is stout, that might not be as big a deal as we fear.
And, yeah, the secondary sometimes was a weakness last season, and the Bulldogs are losing a couple of starters back there, so that’s a major concern.
There is quite a bit of returning talent on defense, however, including Jonathan Ledbetter, David Marshall, Tyler Clark, Julian Rochester and, hopefully, Natrez Patrick. And, back in the secondary, I look for Tyrique McGhee and Deangelo Gibbs to contribute, along with returnees Deandre Baker and J.R. Reed.
On offense, my son Bill and I wonder how the passing game will fare, and who’ll replace Wims’ production at receiver. Terry Godwin had a fairly quiet season in 2017, despite making the catch of the year against Notre Dame. Will he step it up this year? Will Mecole Hardman continue to progress as both a receiver and kick returner? Who else among the receiving corps will stand out? Riley Ridley was impressive in the game against Alabama. Ahkil Crumpton could be a factor. And perhaps J.J. Holloman, rarely used as a freshman, will live up to his 2017 preseason hype and give the Dawgs the size they need at that position.
Of course, the question that fans asked all last season remains: What about the tight ends? Isaac Nauta is an NFL-caliber talent, but he wasn’t targeted nearly as much last year as in his freshman season.
The whole tight end thing is a puzzlement. I realize they were needed in many instances for blocking this past season, but there were so many times that a pass to one of them would have been a fairly easy first down.
Asked about that before the Rose Bowl, offensive coordinator Jim Chaney said it wasn’t anything the tight ends did, but just “the way it unfolded. …. Next year, hell, who knows, we might be back to being a multiple tight end [offense].”
Let’s hope so. It’s the missing piece in Georgia having a truly complete offense.
And, what will the role of incoming freshman QB phenom Justin Fields be? For my buddy Mike, “the huge question for me is how do you play Fields and Fromm? I think Fields may be the QB we need [dual threat], even more than Fromm. If he is, how does Kirby handle that?”
I understand what Mike is saying about Fields, but I frankly don’t see him replacing Fromm, just like there was no way Smart was benching Fromm and reinstalling Jacob Eason this past season as long as Fromm was successful.
But, how best to make use of Fields? I’m not a fan of two-QB systems, generally, but if you stick with Fromm as the starter, and, if Fields is as good as everyone seems to think, how do you keep him on the bench?
And, then there’s the fact that you never know what’s going to happen, as we saw in the opening game last fall when Eason sprained his left knee.
I like the way Scott summed up the quarterback competition: “Maybe we’re overthinking it. If Fields is truly as good as people think, that he could step in right away, then we really can’t lose either way, right?”
As for the rushing attack, I think Swift is as good as we think he is, but I don’t know how durable he is. Tailback by committee probably still will be the plan, with at least one of the freshmen likely to get substantial playing time. I have no problem with that approach. It worked brilliantly most of 2017, keeping fresh legs in the game when it mattered most.
Also, how will the departure of Shane Beamer affect Georgia’s rejuvenated special teams? Will the punting game falter with the departure of one-season star Cameron Nizialek?
Finally, how will Smart and his staff handle prosperity? The Dawgs will have a target on their backs this season, and much is expected of the program from now on. Some past Georgia teams haven’t handled the spotlight well. Smart and his team did a good job of it in 2017. Will that continue?
Lots to worry about, but the 2017 Dawgs proved that, given a relatively injury-free run and some freshmen making big contributions, a bunch of question marks hanging over a team don’t necessarily limit what sort of season you can have.
This time last year, I wasn’t hearing anyone except my brother Jon predict Georgia would play for a national championship (and he makes that prediction every year). Looking back on those discussions now, we were all wondering whether the defense truly could become elite (it could), whether the offensive line would show marked improvement (it did), whether the Dawgs would become more effective in the red zone on both offense and defense (they did), whether Chaney would improve as a play caller, make better use of the running game and do a better job handling the quarterback (with a couple of major exceptions, he did), whether someone would step up at receiver (Wims did) and whether special teams play would improve (it did, drastically).
Looking ahead, defense is the big question for me in 2018. Replacing that many starters is a major undertaking, and such a drastic rebuilding project might well keep the Dawgs out of the College Football Playoff in 2018, though they look like a definite favorite to make it back to the SEC Championship Game. Considering all the talent that must be replaced, I’d consider making it back to Atlanta for the conference championship game to be another successful season.
However, when it comes to Smart’s Dawgs in 2019, I think the sky’s the limit. …
How about you? Will you be satisfied with a return to the SEC Championship Game, or will anything less than the playoff be disappointing? Share your thoughts on the Dawgs’ prospects in the coming season, as well as any other UGA athletic issues you’d like to discuss, by emailing me at firstname.lastname@example.org, or post your comments below.