Less than a week now until Kirby Smart’s first season as UGA’s coach kicks off in the Georgia Dome against the North Carolina Tar Heels, and those Dawgs fans willing to go out on a limb with a season prediction have run out of wiggle room.
I’m already on record with a prediction of a 9-3 regular season record, and I haven’t seen any reason to change my mind. I see Ole Miss and Tennessee as probable losses, plus I think the Bulldogs drop another at some point (possibly in one of those “trap” games where the players are caught looking ahead to, say, Florida).
Of course, I would love for Georgia to exceed my expectations.
As for the predictions from other fans I’ve talked with this past week, they have ranged from my brother Jon’s annual undefeated-and-a-national-championship answer (he’s the eternal optimist) to a bunch of fans who think my 9-3 prediction is solid, and several who believe I might be slightly too optimistic: They think 8-4 is more likely.
Meanwhile, my esteemed colleague Mark Bradley thinks Smart’s first batch of Bulldogs will go 10-2, citing a pretty favorable schedule. He sees the Dawgs losing only to Ole Miss and Tennessee.
While it’s true that Georgia doesn’t face Alabama or LSU this season and should be favored in all of its games after the Oct. 1 game in Athens against the Vols, that so-called “favorable” schedule is pretty front-loaded.
Opening with the Tar Heels should be something of a challenge, no matter who the Dawgs start at quarterback. North Carolina looks pretty comparable to Georgia on paper, despite being a 3-point underdog. True, its defense led by Gene Chizik had trouble last season stopping the run (and it looks like Nick Chubb probably will be able to start), but the Heels’ own running game is pretty formidable, while Georgia’s defensive front is a major question mark.
Then, after devouring a cupcake in a noon-time game the following week, the Dawgs go on the road to Missouri and Mississippi before hosting Tennessee. That means just one game in Athens before October (thanks to the “neutral” site opener in Atlanta). The last time the Dawgs played only one of their first four games at home was 1966! (Of course, Georgia won the SEC that season.)
I think if the Dawgs come out of the first five games with a 3-2 record, well, Mr. Bradley might be on the right track. But I have to admit, there are a lot of concerns, as my son (who is one of those who think this looks like an 8-4 season) pointed out. He’s worried because the Dawgs are so thin at so many positions.
As he put it: “This team has a lot of raw talent, but they will still make mistakes. Defensive front seven is a legit problem and being only one line deep on offensive line is, too. New QB (whoever that is) will have struggles. I think it takes a few games for running backs to settle in. Receivers are thin, too. Tight ends are a major strength and running backs will be. Secondary should be solid, but is still not very deep. I expect them to steal a tough game, but drop a game to a team they are better than. That’s just how it goes in first years with new coaches and QBs.”
He’s right about there being a lot of uncertainty with this team. Georgia not only is breaking in a new QB (whenever that happens), it also will be going behind a revamped offensive line and must pretty much rebuild its defensive front. Trenton Thompson will be a monster, and the linebacking corps and starting secondary look fine, but it remains to be seen what Georgia has beyond that.
Also, there is little experience in the receiver corps. But, on the plus side, I think even if the wide receiver rotation behind Terry Godwin and Isaiah McKenzie takes a while to shake out, the loaded and remarkably talented tight end corps should be able to pick up the slack.
However, the outlook at kicker is especially worrisome (and I easily could see one of Georgia’s losses being the result of a missed field goal or two).
Back to QB, though: When it comes to my prediction, it really doesn’t make a lot of difference whether Jacob Eason winds up starting his first college football game (as seems to be looking more likely) or if the coaches opt for starting the more experienced, though less talented, Greyson Lambert and work in Eason more gradually. Back last winter, I advocated going ahead and starting Eason as soon as possible, to get the freshman mistakes out of the way that much sooner, but as the season drew nearer, I thought maybe the other scenario looked more sensible.
Frankly, I believe Smart and offensive coordinator Jim Chaney will start whichever QB they think gives them the best chance of beating North Carolina, which is how it should be. But while Eason undeniably has a greater upside in his throwing arm, he’s also going to make some freshman mistakes along the way.
Another factor that concerns me is the shaky depth at tailback. It looks like Chubb will be able to resume his role as the featured back, but will he be able to (or will they want him to) carry a full load early on? If not, the questionable status of Sony Michel coming back from that broken arm looms large, though I feel a bit better since freshman Elijah Holyfield was able to return to practice after tweaking an ankle.
So, whether 10-2, 9-3 or 8-4, how many losses will be too many for Bulldog Nation to consider Smart’s first year a success?
As I noted in a previous Blawg, I’d consider a 9-3 record to be a successful season if it includes a win over Florida and a second-place finish in the SEC East. However, if any of the three losses is a blowout, or one of them is to an obviously inferior program, 9-3 still might be grumble-worthy.
Bottom line: If Chubb starts and can play most of the UNC game, I think Georgia wins that one. Ole Miss and UT worry me the most. I think it’s likely the Dawgs lose both of those. I think they probably will lose one more somewhere along the way. As long as it’s not Florida or Tech, I won’t be too upset.
How about you?
Feel free to share your own thoughts on just how many games Georgia can lose in Smart’s first season and have you still consider it a success.
If there’s something you want to discuss or you have a question for the Junkyard Blawg, email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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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.