Junkyard Mail: How many wins is enough in Kirby Smart’s second year?

Georgia football-Justin Fields-Jacob Eason
Will Jacob Eason follow the trend of Georgia quarterbacks showing significant improvement in their second season?

The college football season kicks off unofficially this week with SEC Media Days in Hoover, Ala., with Georgia on tap Tuesday as coach Kirby Smart will meet the press along with running backs Nick Chubb and Sony Michel and linebacker Roquan Smith.

Later in the week, the conference’s preseason media poll and All-SEC teams will be released, and it’s likely that Georgia will be the favorite to win the SEC East, with Alabama most likely the pick to win the conference title.

Of course, that’s no guarantee of success, as the media that covers SEC football has been wrong about the eventual conference champion 19 times out of the past 25 years, though they got it right last year with Bama.

What are your expectations for Kirby Smart’s second season as UGA’s coach? (Steven Colquitt/UGA)

As Georgia fans unfortunately know, being picked as the preseason favorite frequently doesn’t work out, as when Georgia topped the SEC East polls in 2013 and 2015, but finished third both years.

Whether the Dawgs top the East or not, the general expectation among fans I’ve heard from lately is that Smart’s second team should show improvement over the 8-5 mark from last year, as a reader notes in a letter kicking off the latest installment of Junkyard Mail. …

Bill, How many wins do you expect the Dawgs to get this year, and what you think the bottom line is on what the Georgia fan base will see as acceptable progress for Kirby in his second year? Looking at the schedule, I’m thinking 10-2 for the regular season and winning the East, but I really won’t be satisfied unless they turn things around in Jacksonville after three disappointing years. What’s your prediction?

— Harold Brown

Harold, how the Dawgs do this year hinges on two key factors, I think: the offensive line and Jacob Eason. If the line is even moderately better than last year, I think Eason is talented enough to lead Georgia to the SEC Championship Game.

As Seth Emerson recently noted, Georgia QBs have tended to show significant improvement in their second year. David Greene’s sophomore year saw a five-win improvement, to 13-1 and an SEC championship. Matthew Stafford’s sophomore season saw a two-win improvement, to 11-2. And Aaron Murray’s second year saw a four-win improvement, to 10-4 and the SEC East title.

Now, to go out on a limb, I think Georgia is likely to get 10 wins in Smart’s second year as coach — but, that’s counting the bowl game. My prediction for the regular season is 9-3.

Will that be enough to get the Dawgs to Atlanta for the SEC title game? I think that all depends on the game in Jacksonville. At this point, the Dawgs look capable of heading into the Florida game 7-0, but I don’t think that will happen. Whether it’ll be another tough visit to Knoxville or tripping up against Vandy in Nashville, Mississippi State in Athens or Mizzou in Athens, I think Georgia still has enough question marks and rough spots still to be worked out to make going undefeated through that stretch unlikely.

Then, of course, Florida and Auburn will be the Dawgs’ toughest challenges. And, while I expect a win over Tech, I won’t breathe easy until the last second has clicked off the clock.

Overall, though, I still believe Smart’s program is a year away from greatness, and that 2018 is the season when anything less than a conference championship and a trip to the College Football Playoff should be considered disappointing. If they don’t hit that mark by next year, I think you’ll hear quite a bit of grumbling in Bulldog Nation.

So, would 9-3 be satisfactory progress? If it includes a win over Florida, I’d say yes, especially since that might mean an SEC East title. If that’s not the case, a lot of fans, like my friend Mike, will consider Chubb and Michel’s time in Athens to have been wasted.

Our next letter writer is high on another player. …

When you talk about Georgia’s receivers, putting [tight end] Charlie Woerner in the slot seems perfect. You are basically running a two-tight-end set, with your two best receivers on the field and creating a mismatch. Other than Terry Godwin, who is a better receiver? Riley Ridley and Javon Wims did not show it last year. J.J. Holloman is a freshman and Mecole Hardman looks like a Terry Godwin clone.

— John Leggett

Georgia TE Charlie Woerner was impressive in the G-Day game. (Cory A. Cole/UGA)

You’re right about the 6-foot-5 and 251-pound Woerner having a lot of potential, and he did have the best yards-after-catch showing of the G-Day game  on a 36-yard TD reception, on which he broke a tackle and outran another defender.

With the departure of Isaiah McKenzie, I expect Woerner to be among those players who will get playing time as the slot receiver, along with Godwin, Michel, Brian Herrien, fellow tight end Isaac Nauta and fan favorite Hardman. All of them look like good targets to me.

How many TRUE freshmen do you see getting significant playing time on the O-line beginning the season?

— Owen Nail

Among the heralded offensive line signees coming in, the one most observers think is likely to get meaningful playing time is 6-foot-7, 350-pound Isaiah Wilson, as a backup at right tackle. I also wouldn’t be surprised to see 6-foot-3, 340-pound guard Netori Johnson this season.

Hi Bill, What’s your confidence level in Jim Chaney & Smart to call a good offense at this point? The talent is all there, but Georgia (and ATL pro teams) consistently disappoint. — Keith Saporsky, Shenzhen, China

Good to hear from the outer reaches of the Bulldog Nation! As regular readers know, I’m not a big fan of the job offensive coordinator Jim Chaney did calling plays last season, but at this point I’m hopeful that his postseason comments about opening things up this year are more than just happy talk. If that doesn’t happen, and Georgia has another disappointing season offensively, Smart will be under a lot of pressure to make a change there.

Hey Bill, Has there been any news at all about Georgia going back to the shiny silver britches instead of the boring matte gray pants? I thought we were supposed to get some a few years ago, but …

— Jon Pruett 

Yeah, Greg McGarity had indicated a couple of years ago that shiny silver britches were in the works, but, since then, nothing. I asked again not too long ago and the athletic department said they’d get back to me if there was anything to report on that front. Still waiting.

Bill, Thank you for all your insight of the Georgia Bulldogs. It bothers me that there are four teams, Alabama, FSU, Tennessee and Georgia Tech, that are playing the first football games at the new Mercedes-Benz (Falcons) Stadium. Why not UGA? I am guessing it is because of our current AD did not have the vision to see this opportunity to showcase the Dawgs. I understand we have a contract with Appalachian State. My thought is we should have bought it out. The recruiting and dollars made with being in this stadium on the first weekend of college football would be so beneficial to the Bulldog Nation. Looking forward to your thoughts.

— Dan McCrickard

Brandon Kublanow sports the Old Leather Helmet trophy in last year’s Chick-fil-A Kickoff Game. (Andy Harrison/UGA)

As I told another fan who made a similar complaint a couple of years back, I think two years in a row opening with a neutral-site game in Atlanta would be too much, especially since the following week Georgia travels to South Bend to play Notre Dame. I’d say that’s enough national nonconference buzz for one season, and Georgia’s not hurting financially.

I think playing in the last Chick-fil-A Kickoff Game held in the Georgia Dome against North Carolina last year was the better scenario for the Dawgs. Since UGA plays in-state rival Tech every year, that means the school only occasionally looks to add another Power 5 opponent to its nonconference schedule, and playing another Power 5 team the week before the Notre Dame trip would have made things quite a bit tougher. The next such game scheduled right now for Georgia is a Labor Day night matchup with Virginia in 2020.

Hey Bill, I’ve got a question about the whole pro style vs. spread debate. If most defenses are now recruiting the types of players (smaller/faster) to defend against the spread and mobile QBs, then wouldn’t a team that runs a pro-style offense now have some advantages? Kind of the reverse of how Georgia Tech enjoyed some early success against teams because their offense was rare. Just a thought, since a pro-style offense would be playing largely against players not as suited to stop them. 

— Eddie from Buford

If a pro-style offense has a really powerful offensive line and receivers who are a threat downfield, I think you’re probably right. Still, considering the overall trend in college football, I think the clock is ticking on a strict pro-style offense. At the very least, dual-threat QBs seem to be the wave of the future, even if you don’t run a full spread.  

(If there’s something you want to discuss, or you have a question, email me at junkyardblawg@gmail.com, or connect with me on Facebook or via Twitter. And don’t forget to check out past entries of the Junkyard Blawg.)

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