Whenever Dawgs fans gather this time of year, the talk quickly turns from hearsay assessments of how preseason camp has gone, and which freshmen are likely to contribute the most, to out-on-a-limb predictions of what sort of season Georgia will end up having.
Saturday afternoon in Athens, the King brothers (and one of my nieces and her husband) sat in a Baxter Street joint drinking beer and talking Bulldogs football. I’d already had a similar chat on the phone earlier in the week with another lifelong Dawgs fan, numerous email conversations with other fans, and gotten detailed season predictions from my son, Bill, who lives in Raleigh but is coming in for the App State game.
Overall, I’d characterize our expectations as optimistic — not world-beating, College Football Playoff optimistic, but, cautiously and moderately optimistic. The exception is my middle brother, Jon, who every year predicts an undefeated season and national championship for the Dawgs. One of these years, he’ll be right again.
My other brother, Tim, hedges his assessment by saying that Georgia should be able to defeat any team on the 2016 schedule. However, he’s not convinced it will do so. Neither am I.
TOUGHEST GAMES: In discussing the games the Dawgs stand the greatest chance of losing, I agree with the four games that my son singled out: at Notre Dame, at Tennessee, Florida in Jacksonville and at Auburn.
Brother Tim thinks Auburn is (again) overrated, and notes that, for the most part, Georgia has owned the Tigers in recent years. Predicting this early what sort of team Auburn will have usually is an iffy proposition, but the Tigers look to be the deepest team in talent that the Dawgs will play this season, and those wins by Georgia have been close the past two years.
As for Notre Dame, the extent of their turnaround from a disappointing 2016 remains to be seen, but that is a big night game on the road in an awe-inspiring setting, and in the full glare of the national media spotlight. If Georgia wins, the team’s confidence should soar. If it loses, it may take a while to steady the ship.
Florida losing much of its pro-caliber defense seems to indicate a likely dip for that program but, as my son put it, “until we win it, I don’t think you can count on it.”
And, Tennessee also lost a number of key players, but still has a lot of talent. Plus, playing in Knoxville (on that pasture they call a field) usually is tough.
PREDICTION: I agree with my son that Georgia coming out of those four games 2-2 would be a reasonable outcome. And, if one of the two wins is over Florida, the Bulldogs still could win the SEC East.
I think that’s about all you can expect at this point, not knowing whether Sam Pittman’s offensive line will show marked improvement. The line’s play will have a great impact on how successful Nick Chubb and Sony Michel are, along with Jacob Eason. Also, we don’t know how the play-calling, special teams and red-zone defense — all areas of concern — will play out.
NEXT TOUGHEST GAME: The season-ender at Georgia Tech. As my son noted, “We haven’t lost in Atlanta to Tech since the Clinton administration. Going there and coming off a loss the previous year seems to usually focus our guys. Just wish we could keep that focus when we play them at noon in Athens in even years.”
PREDICTION: I expect a win over the Jackets, but, playing a Paul Johnson team always is a tricky thing, and the Dawgs haven’t blown Tech out since 2012.
NEXT LEVEL DOWN: In probable order of difficulty, Mississippi State, Kentucky, South Carolina, at Vanderbilt, Missouri and Appalachian State. Any of these teams could beat Kirby Smart’s Dawgs if they don’t play to their full potential. Georgia out-recruits all these programs, but, as Vandy showed last season, you still have to prove it on the field (and for all four quarters).
PREDICTION: My gut feeling is that the Dawgs will stumble and lose one from this group. Maybe Mizzou.
EASIEST GAME: That would be Samford, an opponent UGA’s athletics brain trust should hang its head in shame for scheduling (and actually charging admission!).
PREDICTION: Unless the Dawgs turn in another Nicholls State-like nonperformance, this should be a snoozer, with much of the crowd gone by halfway through the third quarter.
MOST IMPORTANT GAMES: For the Dawgs’ SEC East hopes, that’s obviously Tennessee and Florida.
My son summed up Jacksonville like this: “The psychology of the Florida series, and Georgia’s failure to even compete with them for three straight years, means we need to beat them, even if they are maybe the second or third most talented team on the schedule.” Meanwhile, giving Tennessee a three-game win streak also would show the UGA program trending in the wrong direction.
Add Tech to this list, simply because losing two in a row to the Jackets would be unacceptable to Bulldog Nation.
It would be great to win in South Bend, and it’s always great to beat Auburn, but losses there could be survived (and wouldn’t cause nearly as much psychological damage).
Bottom line: Win Tennessee, Florida and Tech, and, no matter what the overall record is, most fans would be satisfied with Year 2 of the Kirby Smart Era.
BLACKOUT? My son jokes that Samford, an FCS school, is a candidate for a Blackout game this year, but, actually, since Samford comes so early in the season, I don’t really think the Dawgs are likely to break out the black jerseys for this one. I asked Senior Associate Athletic Director Claude Felton if there’d been any word yet on whether there will be a Blackout game this year, and he said he hadn’t heard anything about that at this time. But, if there is, I think the black jerseys are more likely to be worn in November against Kentucky.
PREDICTED SEASON RECORD: While I’d love brother Jon, the eternal optimist, to be right, I’m already on record as predicting the Dawgs will go 9-3, though I think 10-2 isn’t out of the question and, yes, I could see 8-4. But, like my daughter Olivia said, anything less than that and you’d be wondering what the Georgia coaching staff did all offseason.
I think the two biggest factors in determining the success of this season: the progress of the offensive line and Jim Chaney’s play-calling. If the O-line is even moderately better than last year, Georgia has the skill players to be pretty awesome on offense. And, if Chaney shows more imagination and flexibility than he did last season, a trip to Atlanta for the SEC Championship Game should be a reasonable expectation.
But, of course, neither of those developments is a given. Also, the road schedule this year is legitimately scary. Having both the offense and defense improve in the red zone would help, too, but the defense wasn’t as big an issue last year, and I think it should keep the Dawgs in every game this year.
So, that’s the way I see the season playing out. How about you?