Are you feeling good about the Georgia Bulldogs’ prospects in Kirby Smart’s third season? If so, you’re certainly not alone.
With just fewer than eight weeks to go until the 2018 season opens, the Dawgs are the consensus favorite in the SEC East, and many prognosticators think they’re a strong contender for another shot at the College Football Playoff. Quite a few college football observers see Georgia vying with Alabama, Clemson, Ohio State, and Oklahoma for those four playoff spots.
Georgia fans, naturally, have taken these lofty forecasts to heart — to the point that merely winning the Eastern Division again would be seen by some a disappointment.
While sky-high optimism is pretty much the default setting for most of Bulldog Nation this time of year, there are good reasons for fans to think their expectations and/or hopes are justified in 2018.
Of course, there also are a few reasons that fans perhaps ought to temper their optimism just a tad.
Reasons to be optimistic
The running game. You know you have a formidable rushing attack when you can lose the likes of Nick Chubb and Sony Michel and still have a player of the caliber of D’Andre Swift ready to move into the starting spot in the tailback rotation. The Philly flash is only a sophomore, but he made quite a splash last season as Georgia’s third-string back, with his breakaway speed (hello, Auburn!) and receiving ability. Sharing snaps with Swift this coming season will be a couple of steady veterans, Elijah Holyfield and Brian Herrien, and we’ll probably also see the highly touted incoming freshmen, Zamir White and James Cook. That’s a whole lot of running talent.
The offensive line. This is one of the reasons to be optimistic that the running game will keep on chugging, despite the loss of Chubb and Michel. The Dawgs return four of their five starters on the OL, and have done some serious recruiting up front (what a change from the Mark Richt era), meaning there are some talented younger players pushing for playing time. Plus, with Sam Pittman at the helm, they’re likely to keep on getting better.
The schedule. With Georgia Tech the only opponent on the nonconference schedule that’s not a cupcake, and the Dawgs likely to be favored in all their conference games (with the possible exception of Auburn late in the season), anything less than 10 regular-season wins this year could be considered underperforming. Yes, there are a few tricky road games — going to South Carolina to open SEC play, the rebuilding defense facing Missouri’s Drew Lock, and playing LSU in Baton Rouge — but Georgia matches up favorably talent-wise against everyone on the schedule.
That’s because of the premier recruiting. With recruiting classes that ranked first in the nation this year and third last year, Georgia looks well stocked with 4 and 5-star talent and should remain the class of the SEC East this season.
The coaching staff. After a rough first year in Athens, Smart and his coaches came into their own last season. I’m thinking particularly of the SEC Championship game. After getting outschemed and dominated on both lines at Auburn, the only regular season loss, Georgia looked like a different team when it faced the Tigers again three weeks later in Atlanta. The coaches had addressed the issues that had been raised in the first game. There’s still room for improvement (more on that below), but that turnaround showed me this staff learns from experience.
The quarterbacks. There’s no reason last year’s phenom, Jake Fromm, shouldn’t be even better with a year of experience under his belt. He showed us in this year’s G-Day game that he’s becoming more comfortable throwing the long ball, too. Yes, more is likely to be asked of Fromm this season, since he’ll no longer have Chubb and Michel to bail him out, but he doesn’t seem to be the kind of player for whom that will be a problem. As for freshman backup Justin Fields, it will be interesting to see how (and how much) the Georgia staff involves him in the games. However, even if it’s mainly in relief, having such a talented player available is a big plus.
Special teams. Cult hero Rodrigo Blankenship is consistent, and he has a big leg and a big-game mentality, as we saw when he made two field goals of 50 yards or more in the College Football Playoff games. Kick coverage also was strong last year, and Mecole Hardman remains a dangerous punt and kickoff returner.
On the other hand …
Despite all those reasons for optimism, there also are valid concerns at this point. Among them …
No Chubb and Michel. While Swift was impressive in limited use last year, we haven’t seen yet how he’ll handle carrying the increased load as the primary back. And, you don’t lose the experience of a couple of record-setting senior tailbacks without feeling some impact.
No Roquan Smith. The entire starting linebacking corps is gone, most notably the All-American Smith, and the Dawgs aren’t likely to find the “next Roquan” this season. But, the expected return of sometime starter Natrez Patrick should be a big help, and Georgia does have a lot of very promising talent at linebacker, including Monty Rice and Walter Grant. It’s also worth noting that outside linebacker D’Andre Walker, who played as a backup last year, still managed to rank second on the team in tackles for loss, and in sacks.
Rebuilding the defense. Georgia will be without more than half its starters from a very good defense last year. How much of a drop-off will there be while new talent is developed? In the secondary, an occasional problem area last season, the Dawgs return the two strongest players, Deandre Baker and J.R. Reed, and sophomore Richard LeCounte likely will start at one of the safety spots, but the other positions are open. At G-Day, the play of the first-string secondary was encouraging, though. As for the defensive line, Georgia played a lot of folks last year, and Tyler Clark, Julian Rochester, Jonathan Ledbetter, Malik Herring and David Marshall look like the early favorites to start. But, depth needs to be developed, which is where Jay Hayes, a graduate transfer from Notre Dame, could be a key addition.
Lack of depth at quarterback. The two scholarship QBs that Georgia has are terrific, but beyond that the Dawgs are only two bad plays away from having to start a walk-on.
Who will fill the gap left by Javon Wims? Georgia lost its leading receiver in Wims, and it remains to be seen who will step up to take on that mantle. Riley Ridley was very impressive in the national championship game, so he might be the most likely candidate to join Terry Godwin (the team’s second-leading receiver) and Hardman as Fromm’s primary targets. Still, the Dawgs could use breakout seasons by Ahkil Crumpton and J.J. Holloman. As for the continuing question of whether Georgia will make greater use of its tight ends in the receiving game, well, I’ll believe it when I see it.
The schedule. A weak home slate that includes Austin Peay, Middle Tennessee and UMass possibly could affect the Dawgs’ prospects this season if they lose the SEC title game and wind up on the playoff bubble.
The coaching staff. Yes, I was impressed with what the staff did in the SEC Championship game, but the national championship game was another matter. Smart and UGA offensive coordinator Jim Chaney went ultra conservative on offense, from late in the third quarter on, trying in vain to eat clock against the Crimson Tide. The result: Smart was outcoached by Nick Saban, and Georgia gave up a 13-point lead. However, since they’ve already shown they learn from their mistakes, I’m betting that doesn’t happen again to Smart and Co.
Special teams. Last year, graduate transfer Cameron Nizialek did an ace job punting for Georgia, but this year the position is a major uncertainty, with injury-plagued Marshall Long battling incoming freshman Jake Camarda.
So, there you have it: the reasons I’m optimistic, along with what concerns me as we look ahead. Overall, I think the positives outweigh the negatives. What about you?
Going off-topic for a moment …
In the mood for a bit of nostalgia? Check out this new column I did for the AJC, celebrating small-town Georgia and the great American hot dog.