Junkyard Mail: Toughest game for Kirby Smart’s first Dawgs team?

The readiness of Nick Chubb is a big question mark for the 2016 season. (Ted Mayer / UGA)

Which are likely to be the Dawgs’ toughest games this fall? How many wins do you expect from Kirby Smart in his first season? Should true freshman Jacob Eason be eased in at quarterback or would on-the-job training as Georgia’s starter be more beneficial? And are Dawgs fans feeling screen envy over Auburn having college football’s biggest video board? That’s some of what UGA fans are talking about as the Bulldogs arrive back in Athens for spring practice.

Let’s go straight to the Junkyard Mail …

Garris Ference writes: I was just wondering if you could give your way-too-early thoughts on what will be the key game this fall. Is it Ole Miss? Would one loss not be fatal so the Tennessee game becomes critical? Is it going to be Florida again? Will Auburn be rebuilt this year? Since North Carolina is not an SEC game, a loss to open the season would not be fatal to get back to Atlanta for the SEC Championship. Any thoughts or ideas you could share would be appreciated. I always want to try and get to the critical games. I agree with you, the LSU game in Athens a few years ago was the best I have been to in quite a while.

I think the four toughest games (and most likely possible losses) in Kirby Smart’s first season look to be North Carolina, Ole Miss, Tennessee and Florida.

I think the opening game against North Carolina, which as Garris notes will not impact Georgia’s SEC hopes, is actually a toss-up, as the Tar Heels will come into Atlanta having lost some key personnel from last year, while Georgia will have a bunch of question marks hanging over Smart’s first team. This includes the obvious QB question but also the offensive line, the receivers, the defensive front and the kicking game. And the biggest question besides who will start at quarterback is when Nick Chubb will return and how close to his old form he’ll be when he does.

Just on paper, Ole Miss and Tennessee certainly stack up as the games you most easily could see the Dawgs losing, with the Sept. 24 trip to Oxford to play the Rebels, who also lose some key players but will have veteran QB Chad Kelly back, as the toughest in my opinion. The Vols may be everyone’s early pick to win the SEC East, and the Oct. 1 game in Athens also is scary, but I’m still not sold on Butch Jones, so I see Ole Miss as the bigger challenge.

Meanwhile, Florida is always a tough game, whether the Gators get back on track and live up to expectations or not.

Beyond those four opponents, Auburn is always dangerous and the Deep South’s Oldest Rivalry usually unpredictable, and Tech’s offense normally proves tricky for a first-year defensive coordinator, despite the obvious talent gap in that game favoring UGA. Then, there’s always South Carolina, which ought not to beat Georgia but, then again, that was the case with the last Will Muschamp Florida team the Dawgs faced. Here’s hoping a different staff will negate the annual face-plant quotient for UGA.

The remainder of the schedule should see the Dawgs easily favored.

So, what does that mean in terms of fan expectations for how many wins Smart’s first Bulldog team will get?

There are those who think that 10 wins should be some sort of base line for Georgia football simply because a mediocre Richt team got 10 wins last year (against a not very challenging schedule that saw the Dawgs wind up unranked despite those 10 wins). However, I don’t think that’s realistic, and most of the fans I’ve talked with over the past week or so are a bit more cautious about Georgia’s prospects.

Their predictions range from my brother Jon’s standard “undefeated national champion” (which he predicts every year, no matter who the coach is) to several fans who think the Dawgs will be lucky to get out of the 2016 regular season with eight wins.

The majority of the folks I chatted with saw Georgia going 9-3 in the regular season.

Here’s how my buddy Joel summed up the outlook:

“I would probably rate us as a favorite over North Carolina due to the fact that their defense against the run is so bad. They have a good offense but our defense should be pretty good. We get Tennessee at home and I’m not drinking the ‘Tennessee is the new power in the East’ Kool-aid just yet. I think we win that one, too. South Carolina, Kentucky, Vandy and Mizzou should be easy wins, unless we are still plagued by the inconsistency of years past. Florida is Florida, so we can’t be sure of winning that game, and Auburn can always go either way, although we’ve had our way with them in recent years and I think they still have problems. Tech achieved their once-a-decade victory two years ago, so that’s a win.”

Joel predicts losses coming to Ole Miss, Florida and maybe an upset along the way. But all in all, he said, “It’s not a very tough schedule. With better-than-average play for the QB and help from some key freshmen, who knows what could happen?”

A couple of other friends also see three losses for the Dawgs in 2016, with Ole Miss the most likely one and the other two coming from the games against UNC, Tennessee, Florida and Auburn.

That pretty much matches my own thinking.

Also looking ahead to football season is Bobby Arnold, who writes: Bill, where do you come down in this debate about how Kirby Smart should handle quarterbacks this coming season? Should he ease a true freshman like Jacob Eason into the QB rotation, starting out with the more experienced Greyson Lambert or Brice Ramsey, and then let Eason take over, or should he teach him to sink or swim from the very start by throwing him in the deep end and starting him at the Dome against the Tar Heels?

Will Greyson Lambert start at QB in the first game? Should he? (Ted Mayer / UGA)

I can see both sides of that debate, Bobby. But, while Greyson Lambert has the obvious advantage in terms of experience, despite a fairly underwhelming performance last season, the fact that it will be a new offense with a new playbook pretty much negates any advantage he or Brice Ramsey might have had over Eason.

I doubt the spring will really settle anything, and I know a lot of folks expect Lambert to start out the season as the first-string QB and then gradually give way to Eason as the season progresses.

But, if it’s at all close in August and Eason isn’t way behind the other two in development, I hope they go with the true freshman rather than one of the more experienced but less talented quarterbacks.

Here’s my reasoning: The earlier Eason becomes the starter, the earlier in the season the light bulb will click on. Remember, Matthew Stafford didn’t finally take over as full-time starter until midway through his freshman year and that was a very rough season.

To use Bobby’s terminology, I hope the Dawgs “sink or swim” with Eason in the coming season.

Speaking of spring football, Omar Oliver writes: Hey, Bill, I have 3 questions. What are the chances there will be a Dawg Walk at G-Day? Will there be a meet-and-greet on the Sanford Stadium field after G-Day? When will a Jumbotron like at Auburn be placed at beautiful Sanford Stadium?

A Dawg Walk is planned before this year’s G-Day game. (AJC file)

While Dawg Walks haven’t been a part of G-Day in the past, the push to fill the stadium up for this year’s spring game has changed the thinking on that, and athletic spokesman Claude Felton tells me there will be a “traditional” Dawg Walk on April 16. Right now, he said, it’s tentatively set for around 2:45 p.m. (the game kicks off at 4 p.m.).

As for letting fans on the field after the game, no, that’s not going to happen.

And on the subject of whether there are any plans to upgrade Sanford’s video screen to rival the whopper at Auburn, Felton simply said:We’re confident we will upgrade our video technology at some point in the future.”

Got something you want to discuss or a question for the Junkyard Blawg? Email me at junkyardblawg@gmail.com.

Have trouble finding past entries of the Junkyard Blawg at DawgNation? You can read them here (bookmark this link for future use!).

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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.

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