When it comes to the SEC East in the 2018 football season, Kirby Smart’s Georgia Bulldogs are the consensus favorite. So far this offseason, the chatter mainly has focused on which team in the division could be their biggest challenger.
Early money seems to be on South Carolina. USA Today, among others, has said Will Muschamp’s Gamecocks “look like Georgia’s biggest threat in the SEC East.”
In part, the belief that the Dawgs should be on upset alert for the game against South Carolina is because the annual Border Bash is reverting this year to its traditional spot as the Dawgs’ conference opener after taking place midseason the last couple of years. After a less-than-challenging season opener at home in Athens against FCS visitor Austin Peay, kicking off SEC play the next week at Columbia could be a stern test for the Bulldogs, who are replacing a bunch of key players from last season.
Playing in Columbia traditionally is tough, and it’s also noteworthy that, last year in Athens, the Gamecocks put up a stiffer fight than most of Georgia’s opponents. At the time, I called it a “workmanlike win” for the Dawgs, marred by sloppy play, too many penalties, and a turnover on the opponent’s 4-yard line.
The Georgia pass defense also was somewhat porous at times against the Gamecocks’ air attack, particularly on third down, and the Dawgs’ rush couldn’t get consistent pressure on quarterback Jake Bentley, who completed 21 of 35 passes.
But when it counted, the Georgia defense held, and Georgia’s Jake Fromm proved he could throw the ball, too, tossing 2 touchdown strikes as the Dawgs won 24-10.
Another factor in those upset alerts for the Dawgs at Columbia is South Carolina’s apparent status as the choice of the nation’s sports media as the SEC’s “most improved” or “up-and-coming” program.
That appears to be based mostly on the fact that the Gamecocks have a talented, experienced quarterback in Bentley, and that highly rated wide receiver Deebo Samuel, who missed most of last year (including the Georgia game) with an injury, has returned to health.
Expectations are that under new offensive coordinator Bryan McClendon — a former Georgia player and assistant coach — the Gamecocks will be more dangerous offensively than last year, when they were very inconsistent. Plus, there’s this popular belief that Muschamp’s defense will be improved from last year simply because he’s usually had good defenses in the past.
USA Today’s Paul Myerberg even listed the Gamecocks — who are ranked No. 24 in the paper’s post-spring rankings, with Georgia at No. 6 — as his “dark horse” contender for the conference championship, which he expects to be won by Alabama.
Of course, the preseason media darling doesn’t always pan out, and hype has a way of evaporating in the face of hard reality, as happened a few times with Tennessee during the Butch Jones era.
Also, remember how Dan Mullen’s Mississippi State Bizarro Bulldogs entered their game against the Dawgs in Athens last season as probably the hottest team in college football, on the heels of a shocking upset of LSU? It only took the Dawgs one play to put that notion to rest — a terrific flea-flicker pass for a touchdown on the first play from scrimmage — a play that Fromm says was his favorite of the season. Georgia went on to a fairly easy win.
Still, that early date against South Carolina does look like the Bulldogs’ first major challenge of the new season.
However, it’s not the only potential upset that college football observers see on Georgia’s schedule.
Some think Missouri’s Drew Lock, who’s had some success — though not enough — throwing against the Dawgs the past couple of years, might prove too much for a rebuilding Georgia defense. Still, former Tennessee coach Derek Dooley, who spent the last five years coaching receivers for the Dallas Cowboys in the NFL, is Missouri’s new offensive coordinator — a job he’s never held before. I’m not convinced Missouri will be an offensive juggernaut, and the Tigers defense probably will continue to be a weak link.
Others think that Georgia’s blowout of Florida last year was an aberration and that the Gators, with former Mississippi State coach Mullen now in charge, immediately will return to SEC East contender status. Again, I’m not convinced. Florida still is looking for a quarterback, and must rebuild its offensive line.
Plus, Todd Grantham is the Gators’ new defensive coordinator, which should put a big smile on the faces of Georgia’s offensive staff. Yeah, Grantham improved Mississippi State’s defensive numbers last year, but he couldn’t handle the Dawgs. And his other game as a defensive coordinator against Georgia since leaving Athens — the 2014 Belk Bowl when he was with Louisville — also went the Dawgs’ way.
As for the rest of the SEC East, most analysts expect Jeremy Pruitt to face tough sledding in his first year as Tennessee’s new coach. Jones didn’t leave him much to work with. SEC sports information directors recently picked the Volunteers to finish last in the division in 2018.
As for Kentucky, the Wildcats have Benny Snell, probably the conference’s best returning back, but that’s not enough, and Vanderbilt doesn’t appear any stronger than last year.
Actually, the biggest threats to Georgia’s return to the conference championship this season appear to reside in the SEC West.
The Oct. 13 trip to Baton Rouge to play LSU concerns some fans, mainly because it’s always tough to play the Tigers at home. But while LSU’s defense again should be pretty good, the Tigers offense remains suspect, with the departure of their two best running backs and their offensive coordinator.
Really, the toughest game on Georgia’s regular-season schedule once again should be Auburn, with whom the Dawgs split a pair last year, winning the one that counted the most in the SEC Championship Game.
No matter how that game turns out, Georgia remains the favorite to take the East’s spot in the SEC Championship Game and even possibly be a contender for the College Football Playoff.
As Lindy’s preview summed up Georgia’s prospects: “A return to the SEC title game is the baseline of what would be acceptable.”
No pressure, Kirby.