Picking a Dawgs fan’s favorites from season of superlatives

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Georgia tailback Sony Michel breaks away for a touchdown in the second overtime to beat Oklahoma, 54-48, in the Rose Bowl.

A 13-win season where Kirby Smart’s Georgia Bulldogs came within one overtime play of winning a national championship created a lot of special memories that fans will treasure for years.

Here’s a look at what I think are some of the season superlatives for the Dawgs …

Season MVPs

Roquan Smith was Mr. Everything for the Georgia Bulldogs defense. (University of Georgia/courtesy)

College football teams don’t have a season like Georgia just did without great, consistent play from quite a few members of the team. However, for me, the three players who stood out on a very strong team were Sony Michel, Roquan Smith and Rodrigo Blankenship.

Although being half of college football’s most productive backfield duo with Nick Chubb, this season Michel ended up being the most dangerous offensive threat the Bulldogs had, as typified by his wow-worthy performance in the Rose Bowl, rushing 11 times for 181 yards and 3 touchdowns, including the 27-yard game winner, and also catching 4 passes for 41 yards and a touchdown. He ranked fifth nationally and first in the SEC in rushing yards per attempt (7.9) in 2017.

Smith was Mr. Everywhere for the Georgia defense, showing the sort of sideline-to-sideline speed and nose for the ball that wins you the Butkus Award as the nation’s top linebacker. Smith also was a finalist for the Bronko Nagurski Trophy and Chuck Bednarik Award, both of which go to the country’s top overall defensive player.

He led the team this season in total stops, with 137, quarterback sacks (6.5), tackles for loss (14) and QB hurries (17), and was the defensive MVP of the Rose Bowl with 11 tackles, including several key third-down stops.

Smith is considered an almost certain first-round NFL pick, with ESPN’s Mel Kiper Jr. placing him among the top 10 selections. He’s certainly a Bulldog for the ages.

As for Blankenship, who had to earn his return as starting kicker in preseason drills and wasn’t even on scholarship until the week of the Notre Dame game, he blossomed into one of the Dawgs’ most formidable weapons, with both his booming kickoffs and his accuracy and distance making field goals.

Kicker Rodrigo Blankenship became one of Georgia’s best weapons. (University of Georgia/courtesy)

Hot Rod connected on 20 of 23 field goal tries, tying Blair Walsh (2010) for sixth-best field goal percentage (86.9) in UGA history, and he earned a spot on ESPN’s All-Bowl team with a career-long 55-yard field goal against Oklahoma in the Rose Bowl. He nearly won the national championship with the 51-yarder he kicked in overtime against Bama (1 of 3 field goals he made in that game).

I should note that my singling out of Michel is not meant to diminish the great (even essential) contributions from Chubb and Jake Fromm.

Like all UGA fans, I’m so grateful we had both halves of the phenomenal Thunder and Lightning tandem returning for their senior year. Michel and Chubb both ended the 2017 season with more than 1,000 rushing yards, which marked the first time the Dawgs ever had two running backs achieve that feat in the same season. Chubb, the bruising back who wore down most defensive lines as games progressed, was Georgia’s top rusher of the season, with 1,345 yards and 15 touchdowns, while Michel had 1,227 yards and 16 touchdowns. They became the NCAA’s all-time most successful rushing duo.

Still, I think Michel had the edge in overall value to the Dawgs, and I’m not at all surprised that Kiper sees Michel going before Chubb in the upcoming NFL draft, possibly late in the first round.

Said Kiper of Michel: “He’s got that burst outside, the bounce outside ability, the inside running ability. He blocks extremely well in pass protection. He catches the ball out of the backfield.”

Meanwhile, Chubb finished his stellar college career, in which he came back from a devastating left knee injury, with 4,769 rushing yards, trailing only Herschel Walker in both UGA and Southeastern Conference lists of all-time career leaders. He recorded his 24th career game with 100 yards or more rushing with 145, including 2 touchdowns, against Oklahoma in the Rose Bowl.

And Fromm, a freshman who took over the starting quarterback spot midway through the opening game when Jacob Eason sprained his left knee, was one of college football’s feel-good stories of the year.

Although not the most physically talented QB, Fromm proved a steady hand, with seemingly no spotlight too bright or intimidating for him. He wound up with the third-most passing yards in a single season (2,615) by a UGA freshman and tallied 2,694 yards of total offense, accounting for 27 touchdowns along the way. Especially notable was his ability to get his offense into the right play in key moments.

Also worthy of special mention among Georgia players this season are senior receiver Javon Wims, whose knack for going up high and stretching out for big catches was a major component of Fromm’s freshman success; wide receiver Terry Godwin, whose one-handed touchdown reception against Notre Dame was the catch of the season; linebacker Davin Bellamy, whose strip-sacks in both the Notre Dame and SEC Championship games were huge for the Dawgs; Lorenzo Carter, who blocked a field-goal try in the Rose Bowl and was the defensive recipient of the Charley Trippi Award — given to the most versatile player — at the team’s postseason awards gala; and defensive back J.R. Reed, a transfer from Tulsa who ranked second on the team with 79 total tackles, including 5 for lost yardage, 1.5 QB sacks, 2 interceptions, 5 pass breakups, 6 QB pressures and 2 fumble recoveries.

Big plays and special moments

Before the Rose Bowl, I wrote about my favorite plays and moments of the season up to that point, but the postseason produced some notable additions to the list.

Among them is the 80-yard touchdown catch by Mecole Hardman in the second half of the National Championship Game, where he somehow managed to stay in bounds.

Another was Carter’s blocked field goal in the second overtime of the Rose Bowl. 

That set up arguably the greatest play of the season, by Michel, who raced down the left side, picking up a key block from QB Fromm, to score the winning touchdown against the Sooners.

Overall grades

Mel Tucker’s troops finished the year ranked sixth in the nation in total defense, earning a definite A, and I’d also give an A to the special teams, led by Blankenship and graduate punter Cameron Nizialek, but also featuring great punt and kickoff coverage. That was one of the season’s nicest surprises.

Kirby Smart’s team exceeded expectations rather dramatically in his second season as the Dawgs’ head coach. (University of Georgia)

Kudos also should go to Smart for his remarkable progress after a shaky first season. An A grade to him, too. 

I debated about the overall grade for Jim Chaney’s offense. After Chaney went ultra conservative late in the National Championship Game (a fatal miscalculation), I was thinking maybe a B or B+, but my son pointed out that Georgia did put up 23 points on the vaunted Bama defense, where Clemson could only manage 6, and Chaney did a fine job of managing the season overall, and made Georgia a dynamo in the red zone this season, fixing a previous problem. In the end, I think a 13-2 record with a freshman QB and a freshman right tackle probably merits an A-.

Favorite games

My son Bill noted that this probably is going to be the only time that he got to attend what many consider the two best games of this entire college football season: the Rose Bowl and the College Football Playoff National Championship Game at Mercedes-Benz Stadium, both overtime affairs.

He and I agreed on the games from this season that we’d most like to rewatch and savor in the offseason:

The Rose Bowl win over Oklahoma. The biggest and best win of my 32-year-old son’s lifetime and, for me, second only to the Herschel-led Sugar Bowl win over Notre Dame for the national title in January 1981.

The SEC Championship win over Auburn. A convincing revenge win for the Dawgs that holds up well in repeated viewings.

The road win over Notre Dame. Bright lights, big stage, a freshman QB’s first start and a close victory over a storied opponent.

The shellacking of Florida in Jacksonville. My son said he’s “never seen us beat them like that in my memory.” A sweet, sweet turnaround from the previous three years.

The beatdown of Tennessee in Knoxville. Fromm threw a touchdown pass and ran for two more as the Dawgs rolled to a 41-0 blowout of the Vols, who suffered their first shutout loss in nearly a quarter-century.

The home win over Mississippi State. The flea-flicker pass for a touchdown on Georgia’s first offensive snap of the game was a thing of beauty, and the decisive win over an opponent that was the nation’s hottest team at the time (and which still wound up the season ranked) was when many of us knew this UGA team was something special.

The rivalry win over Georgia Tech. A 38-7 domination of the Jackets that more than made up for the gut-wrenching loss a year earlier.

Favorite souvenir of the season

A great souvenir from a memorable season. (Tees Fan Club)

Prior to this season, the only time the Georgia Bulldogs had played in the Rose Bowl, the granddaddy of all the postseason games, was in 1943. For several years now, I’ve had a framed copy of the cover of the program from that game hanging on the wall over my desk at home, and prior to this season I picked up a nifty vintage T-shirt commemorating the 1943 game.

Maybe that was an omen of what was to come. Anyway, shortly after it was announced that Georgia and Oklahoma would meet in Pasadena in the College Football Playoff, my son emailed me to say he thought it would be really cool if someone did a T-shirt featuring one of the old-style Bulldogs with roses in his teeth.

Finally, after the win over Oklahoma, someone did. We’ll be wearing them proudly.

A really nice way to remember a terrific season!

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