As we write this, we are 38 days from the start of the Kirby Smart era at Georgia. Or at least in terms of real, actual games. So much attention and analysis has already been paid to Smart in recruiting, practice, interviews, talking to Smart’s third-grade teacher, etc., that it’s easy to forget he’s still 0-0 as Georgia’s head coach.
There’s reason to believe Smart will finish his first season with a very good record. The schedule is very manageable, with not a single game that on paper looks unwinnable.
There’s also reason to worry that it could be an unexpectedly rough season. There are arguably six games that are very losable, perhaps as many as nine, if Georgia doesn’t resolve its uncertainties at a host of positions: Quarterback, tailback (because of injuries), offensive line, defensive front seven, and place-kicker.
Given all that, here’s one man’s ranking of what we’ll call Georgia’s most important games this year. The criteria: Importance to a championship run, difficulty of opponent, importance to program and recruiting, and when the game comes during the season.
Yes, it’s fairly subjective, and yes it’s likely to look very silly when the season is completed and you look back on it. That’s why they play the games, as they all say. But here’s our list, in reverse order in order to build suspense:
12. Louisiana-Lafayette, Nov. 19, Athens
This only becomes important if you lose it. Even then, in the long run there’s evidence it doesn’t hurt you much. Nick Saban and Smart lost to Louisiana-Monroe in their first season at Alabama – Nov. 17 of that year. Everything still turned out OK.
11. Nicholls State, Sept. 10, Athens
This could end up being an important game for several reasons, sandwiched in between the potentially difficult opener against North Carolina and the SEC opener at Missouri. What if it’s the week that certain young players (cough, cough, Jacob Eason, cough) get their first substantive action, or even start? It’s also the home opener of the Smart era. But the fact the first game, technically a neutral-site, is only an hour away in Atlanta, takes a bit away from the anticipation of it.
10. Vanderbilt, Oct. 15, Athens
Maybe the Commodores will make the leap under Derek Mason that Year 3 coaches tend to make. Two people at SEC media days actually picked Vanderbilt to win the SEC East. They might have been drunk, but they picked them nonetheless. And led by tailback Ralph Webb and linebacker Zach Cunningham, the Commodores do have good players on each side of the ball. But it’s still Vanderbilt, and it’s still at Sanford Stadium, where the Commodores have won just twice since 1962.
9. Kentucky, Nov. 5, Lexington, Ky.
This is the first game on this list where we consider it – whatever you want to call it, trap game, dangerous, tricky – for Georgia if it’s not playing well. The Wildcats were picked to finish fourth in the SEC East, just one spot behind the Bulldogs, though it was a large very large gap. It’s hard to project out how each team will look by November, but for now it’s a game Georgia should be favored in, but not by a huge amount.
8. South Carolina, Oct. 8, Columbia, S.C.
Most everybody expects the Gamecocks to struggle, and struggle mightily, in Year 1 under Will Muschamp. They were picked last in the SEC East, though two other media members – perhaps mistaking it for a women’s basketball poll – did give them first-place votes. So why is this game more important – albeit one spot more important – than Kentucky? Because it’s South Carolina, which is a closer rival, geographically and spiritually, and Georgia hasn’t won there since 2008.
7. Missouri, Sept. 17, Columbia, Mo.
It’s the SEC opener, and it’s on the road, and it’s being way overlooked. That’s because it comes right before the two-game stretch regarded as crucial to Georgia’s season. Maybe it should be a three-game crucial stretch. The Tigers aren’t expected to be very good – they were picked sixth – but haven’t we tired of writing that sentence in July and then having to revise it in December?
6. North Carolina, Sept. 3, Atlanta
Many will argue this should be much higher. It’s the season opener. It’s the first time the nation sees a Smart-coached team in action. And the Tar Heels could be dangerous, with a high-scoring offense and a defense under Gene Chizik that could be improved. The reason it isn’t higher on this list is because it’s the first game, and it’s non-conference: You’d rather win it, obviously, but if you lose it and use it for lessons that help you to a strong season, then it gets forgotten. Georgia could lose to the Tar Heels, but still finish as low as 10-2 and return to the Dome in December, playing for a spot in the College Football Playoff.
5. Georgia Tech, Nov. 26, Athens
The Yellow Jackets are coming off a 3-9 season. They were picked to finish sixth in their division this year. On paper, the North Carolina game should be much more difficult. So why is this game rated higher? Because it’s Georgia Tech. Smart doesn’t want to start off his tenure by giving the Yellow Jackets reason to think this could be a competitive rivalry.
4. Auburn, Nov. 12, Athens
The same thing could be said here: Mark Richt, whatever warts he may have had, was 10-5 during his tenure against Auburn, and that was during a time the Tigers had some very good teams. Of course Richt also lost his first game against Auburn. Still, not only does Smart want to establish his own good start against Auburn, but this is a game that could have division and conference implications. And who knows, Gus Malzahn may turn things around this year and bring a dangerous team into Sanford Stadium.
3. Ole Miss, Sept. 24, Oxford, Miss.
This, on paper, is the most losable game on Georgia’s schedule. It may be the only game that if it were played this week that Georgia would be the underdog. And it will be an early test of whether Smart’s teams at Georgia will put up a better product in big games. The only reason it doesn’t come in higher on this list is it’s not a division game. Unlike …
2. Florida, Oct. 29, Jacksonville, Fla.
Not much explanation is required here. By the time this one rolls around, it could decide the SEC East. And, hello, it’s Florida.
1. Tennessee, Oct. 1, Athens
No detailed explanation required here, other than why it supercedes Florida. For one, the fact it’s in Athens, which means Georgia has more to lose emotionally with a loss – but also a better chance to gain the upper hand in the SEC East race. Tennessee, after all, is the clear pick to win the division. A Tennessee win is a moral hit to Georgia, as well as a big hit in the SEC East hopes. If Georgia wins, it potentially makes it a two-team race with Florida. Of course plenty of other games will impact that. Georgia’s record coming into this game could be anything from 4-0 to 1-3. That again is why they play the game. This one just sets up to be the most important one.
Next: Georgia’s most important games of 2017.
No, just kidding.