College football may not have named a champion yet, but that doesn’t mean it’s too early for fans and pundits to start ranking teams for the 2017 season. Kirby Smart’s Georgia Bulldogs are showing up surprisingly high in a couple of these very early rankings.
That’s just one of the topics UGA fans are discussing as we dip into some of the recent Junkyard Mail. …
Bill, I know early preseason optimism tends to run high for just about every SEC program, but over the holidays some of my friends and family were predicting the 2017 Dawgs will win the SEC East and finish in the top 10! I think that sounds like too much of a leap forward. What do you think?
— Frank Harris
Sporting News agrees with your friends and family, Frank, and Athlon also is pretty high on the Dawgs in the first couple of ultra-early preseason rankings I’ve seen.
SN has Georgia No. 10 in its ranking, and what makes that even more amazing is that the nine teams placing ahead of the Dawgs on their list all played in New Year’s Six bowls (including the playoffs) this year: Alabama, USC, Clemson, Ohio State, FSU, Oklahoma, Penn State, Michigan and Washington.
In picking UGA to round out the top 10, SN said: “Here’s the team that will be talked about (more) than anybody else in the offseason. Nick Chubb and Sony Michel stayed in school, and Jacob Eason should make the jump as a sophomore. At least that’s what we’re counting on. Kirby Smart should be excited about Year 2. Bulldogs fans will be.”
That puts the Dawgs ahead of LSU, Louisville, Wisconsin, Florida, Oklahoma State, Stanford, Virginia Tech, West Virginia, Auburn, Kansas State, Miami, Colorado, Texas, Tennessee and South Florida.
Athlon’s early ranking puts Georgia at No. 13, noting: “The SEC East will be a tight, three-team battle between Georgia, Florida and Tennessee next fall. For now, the Bulldogs get the nod as our early favorite to claim the division title. The schedule for coach Kirby Smart’s team does feature a couple of tough road trips with games at Tennessee, Notre Dame and Auburn. However, the offense should take a step forward with quarterback Jacob Eason having a full offseason to work as the starter. The return of running backs Nick Chubb and Sony Michel ensure the ground game will be one of the best in the SEC. Georgia’s defense is expected to return nearly all of its key contributors from a unit that limited opponents to 24 points a game in 2016.”
As for me, looking at next season I see some reasons to be optimistic, including: Chubb and Michel returning; Eason and Smart both with a year under their belts; the defensive front led by Trenton Thompson; and what looks to be another mediocre year in the SEC East.
Reasons to be worried? Losing Isaiah McKenzie out of an already underperforming receiver corps; still being in rebuilding mode on the offensive line, with a lot of promising youngsters but little experience; the continuing uncertainty at kicker; and Jim Chaney.
Frankly, Georgia should be in contention for the SEC East title just about every year, and if you see the Dawgs winning the East, a top 10 ranking would be justified. I’m just not sure such predictions for 2017 aren’t a year premature.
What do you make of this dispute between Rodrigo Blankenship’s family and Coach Smart? On the one hand, I think Rodrigo the best kicker we had, but if the head coach doesn’t think he’s worth a scholarship, I don’t know why that should be debated in the media. Airing such dirty linen in public isn’t good for the program.
— Erin Mathews
It’s certainly Smart’s prerogative to make such a call on whether to award Blankenship a scholarship, though I think perhaps taking the chance of running off your starting kicker may not be the wisest course of action, and Smart’s apparent reluctance to commit a scholarship to one of the most important (but chronically overlooked) aspects of the team continues to be a bit worrisome. It was encouraging that Blankenship seems much more willing than his father to accept whatever Smart decides.
Of course, it could be that Smart is still looking for an upgrade at that position, since Cameron Nizialek, who has kicked the past three years at Columbia in the Ivy League, has announced he will be a graduate transfer at Georgia this season. Nizialek primarily has been a punter, and with Marshall Long having to recover from a severe knee injury and Brice Ramsey barely adequate as a backup, help undoubtedly is needed there. But, Nizialek also has kickoff and placekicking experience, and that might figure into what Smart ultimately decides.
Considering how important the kicking game is, and how frequently it winds up being the deciding factor in at least a couple of games each season, here’s hoping Smart doesn’t treat that aspect of the game as cavalierly as some coaches have been known to do.
Bill, my real concern with Chaney is his lack of development working with Eason. Our QB has overthrown receivers on deep balls from Game 1 to Game 13. There must be a technical flaw in his delivery that needs correcting, yet the staff (Chaney) has failed to address this.
— Pete Talmadge
You’re not alone, Pete, as I’ve heard from quite a few fans who aren’t happy with Chaney. Aside from his predictable, stubborn play-calling, and his (and Smart’s?) insistence on making the players fit into the system the coaches prefer rather than molding the system to fit the talent available, I’d agree that the relatively slow progress we saw this season from Eason is disturbing. Of course, some of that has to fall on the player himself, but it’s definitely another area where it seems Georgia’s offensive coordinator should be aiming for improvement.
On the other hand, this next fan takes a somewhat different view …
I am an assistant high school coach at Savannah Christian and have been doing this for longer than I would like to admit. … I find (Chaney) to be very bright and creative in trying to find ways to move the ball. I wonder if he is trying to do what he wants, or (what) Kirby wants … Sometimes, it takes a while for a staff to mesh philosophically (and) a coach can look bad trying to run someone else’s offense. Be patient, and I think you will see this team come around pretty quick.
— Sandy Shepherd
Believe me, I’d love for Chaney to prove all his naysayers (me included) wrong next season.
Bill, what do you think the chances are that the coaches try to use Mecole Hardman as more than just a backup defensive back next season? Seems like a waste of 5-star talent not to get the ball into his hands!
— Jason Harris
With the departure of Isaiah McKenzie, I’d expect Hardman will have a good chance of not only winning the punt returner spot next season, but I also wouldn’t be surprised to see him utilized in some special offensive packages as a receiver while remaining primarily a defensive player.
I’m afraid by the time they have a mature OL and recruit any NFL-capable receivers, Jacob Eason will be gone before he can bring UGA to “The Promised Land.” My immediate instinct is that Jake Fromm will benefit most as QB from Georgia’s recruiting, under Kirby. What do you think?
— Jim Parry
That could be, but, if the dividends from that recruiting don’t pay off by Eason’s junior season, I’m afraid Smart is going to have a very restive fan base on his hands.
Bill, Can you believe we’ve never played Oklahoma in football? As far as you know, has this ever come close to happening? Do you have any indication that this could happen (in the regular season) in the next 10 years?
— Austin, Class of 2005
I don’t recall anybody other than fans talking about Oklahoma as a possible regular season opponent, but with Notre Dame coming up and future games scheduled with UCLA, adding a home-and-home with a program like the Sooners might draw consideration. Or, perhaps Georgia and Oklahoma might get paired by the TV powers-that-be in one of those early-season neutral-site games (like the Dawgs tentatively have scheduled against Virginia in Atlanta in 2020). One thing’s for sure: Georgia’s upcoming nonconference schedules could use an upgrade to keep all those seats at Sanford Stadium filled. The likes of Samford and Murray State certainly won’t do it.
A BIG LOSS
Finally, I wanted to take a moment to pay tribute to UGA super fan Mike “Big Dawg” Woods, who died this past week. Mike, known for painting his bald head with a Georgia Bulldog, was one of my classmates in the final graduating class at Athens High School in 1970, and I always enjoyed running into him at UGA fan events and athletic contests. We also occasionally exchanged emails and Facebook messages, and I was always impressed by how much he loved the Dawgs. My thoughts and prayers are with his family.
One of our fellow AHS classmates, Johnny Barrett, passes along word that services for Mike will be held at Lord & Stephens Funeral Home East Chapel in Athens at 11 a.m. Tuesday, Jan. 10, and visitation will be 2-4 p.m. and 6-8 p.m. Monday, Jan. 9. In lieu of flowers, the Woods family asks that donations be made in his name to Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta.
Rest in peace, Big Dawg.