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Most Georgia fans expect the Florida Gators to be Georgia’s only real challenge in the SEC East in 2021.

Surveying the SEC East: Dawgs’ prospects for 2021 are scary good

Having spent the past couple of weeks chatting with Dawgs fans, old and young, about the coming football season, I’ve concluded that confidence is high, as they say in the military. 

In fact, for those UGA supporters who were raised on the Vince Dooley-Larry Munson brand of caution, it’s downright scary how pervasive the optimism is in Bulldog Nation.

After all those years of good but not great results, nothing is more unnerving to a Georgia Bulldogs fan than concluding that your team has a legitimate shot at the national championship. 

And, indeed, many early season predictions have Georgia winning the SEC East, and probably more. Athlon Sports was pretty typical of college football observers, saying: “The Bulldogs have the pieces in place for another run at the College Football Playoff.”  

The Dawgs’ schedule has fans anticipating Kirby Smart finally delivering on a national title. (Curtis Compton/AJC)

Georgia is “the overwhelming favorite to win the SEC East and face Alabama in the SEC Championship Game,” concluded 247 Sports. And, College Football News said of Georgia: “This program is overdue to take that next step.”

The problem for Kirby Smart and his staff is that, after coming so close in 2017, nothing short of winning the College Football Playoff championship game is going to feel like a completely successful season for many Dawgs fans.

“The playoff system has changed so much about college football and not all of it for the better,” Georgia fan Joel Provano said. “If you don’t win it all, you’ve had an unsuccessful season.”

The bare minimum expectation of all the fans I checked in with is Georgia winning the SEC East, since Florida faces something of a rebuilding year. 

And, despite the Dawgs having to open the season in Charlotte against mighty Clemson, many fans have taken a look at Georgia’s schedule and feel it actually sets up perfectly for Smart’s 2021 team to make a playoff run.

Of course, the downside to that kind of sunny outlook is that anything less than a conference title (and the near-automatic playoff berth that comes with it) is going to result in an awful lot of disappointed fans and boosters.

So far, Bulldogs fandom has been pretty patient with Smart, but another not-quite-there year might start to erode some of his thus far solid support.

Scott Peacocke believes “there’s no question we are head and shoulders above the division in terms of returning talent; something really will have to go wrong with the program if we don’t win the East.”

If Georgia falters in the East, though, Scott thinks it will “definitely create a crisis atmosphere for the program. … Not that Kirby would be on the hot seat (no way), but it would significantly increase the doubters who question whether Kirby will ever be more than a great recruiter.”

However, my son Bill thinks that, even if Georgia doesn’t win the East, Smart isn’t likely to be on the hot seat, “because I don’t see any alternative that will be better, and I think there is a realization that it could be lot worse. … And, as long as [Nick] Saban coaches, and Dabo [Sweeney] in the ACC and Ohio State in the Big 10 are unchallenged, everyone else has to deal. Saban, in particular, is a hard ceiling, and no one has really thrived against him.”

As young Bill noted, the Vols’ program that “soared above us in ’90s has been mostly below us since. There are some lessons learned there that should make us thankful for stability and different culture/leadership over that period of time.”

Owen Scott agreed: “Perhaps we should be more appreciative of our consistency … but, we’re Georgia fans! We want to win championships and dominate Bama … OK, at least beat Saban occasionally.”

The return of quarterback JT Daniels is a key reason UGA fans are excited about the coming season. (Getty Images)

Overall, I have to agree with the fans who believe that the conference portion of the schedule — which includes several teams with first-year coaches and none of the top contenders out of the West — looks entirely manageable for Smart’s Dawgs.

My brother Tim summed it up like this: “I think there will be three teams vying for the worst team in the SEC and we play them all: South Carolina, Tennessee and Vandy. Auburn also could get votes for worst team in SEC. This is the year to make the run to the natty!”

Assaying the SEC East at this early stage, it does look to me as if Florida remains Georgia’s only real challenger this coming season, though I’d expect the Gators to take a step back with the loss of quarterback Kyle Trask, receivers Kadarius Toney and Trevon Grimes, tight end Kyle Pitts and other starters. Usually, it takes Dan Mullen at least a season to develop a quarterback, so even if Emory Jones proves to be the real deal — and despite Florida adding star tight end Arik Gilbert as a transfer from LSU — the Gators are more likely to be dangerous in 2022. 

George Pickens leads a very talented receiving corps for the Bulldogs. (Travis Bell/UGA)

As for Missouri and Kentucky, both seem to be perpetual midlevel programs, not terrible but not great. Missouri can be dangerous, but they won’t have running back Larry Rountree III this season. Kentucky has a pretty decent defense, but they have a lot of work to do offensively.

Neither program is likely to be in contention to win the East this year, barring a meltdown or rash of injuries in Athens and Gainesville.

And, the rest of the SEC East looks pretty dismal this coming season. 

Tennessee, which has been plagued by bad hires at head coach and athletic director for more than a decade, will have to go through yet another new-coach transition. 

It’s tough for even UT supporters to put a positive spin on things. I asked my favorite Vol, former colleague Joey Ledford, for his thoughts, and he replied, “Bill, we continue to wander through the wilderness. We’re hoping [new head coach Josh] Heupel can hold the team together. Our experience in these many coaching changes is that the new guy starts from scratch, because so many players leave. It’s even worse this time, because of the recruiting violations we intend to own up to. So, I guess it’s you guys and the Gators in the East, as usual, though I know both teams have their own trials and tribulations.”

Still, you won’t find much sympathy for the Vols among Dawgs fans. Jason Hasty, the UGA athletics history specialist at the Hargrett Library in Athens, spoke for a lot of Dawgs when he said of Tennessee: “Having suffered through the dark years of the ’90s (and keep in mind not only was my freshman year in ’94, but the very first game I attended as a student on the day I moved into Reed Hall was a 41-23 shellacking by the Vols), I take no small joy in seeing Tennessee going through what it’s going through. Even in the depths of the [Ray] Goff years we weren’t an embarrassment to the conference like they’ve become.”

South Carolina isn’t in much better shape, though at least they’re not staring down the barrel of the NCAA’s enforcement division. And, Vandy is Vandy; I doubt they’re going to become a powerhouse any time soon, if ever.

Overall, Georgia’s 2021 schedule looks extremely favorable. Even if the Dawgs lose to Clemson, it’s not going to be a killer to their playoff ambitions. Win the SEC, and Georgia is in in the playoff. Of course, Alabama remains Kirby’s white whale, and, if he’s going to win another SEC championship any time soon, he’s going to have to beat his mentor, Saban.

There is a chance (however slight) that, even if the Bama curse continues, an SEC runner-up Georgia team that had two close losses to Top 5 teams (Clemson and Bama) still might be a strong playoff contender, though that scenario would depend on other top programs, like Ohio State and Oklahoma, having two worse losses.

Otherwise, as Larry Pope said, “Lose to Clemson and Alabama, and we probably won’t make the final four, given the [playoff] committee’s infatuation with Notre Dame and the Big 10.”

Even with Clemson and, potentially, Alabama looming, though, UGA fans are extremely upbeat about their team’s chances in 2021, especially since JT Daniels took over as starting quarterback. Plus, he has a lot of top-flight receiving talent returning, led by George Pickens.

Fans’ unbridled optimism runs counter to they experienced in the days of Vince Dooley and Larry Munson. (AJC file)

“It’s scary how favorable I see our position” Darrell Huckaby said. “Coach Dooley would shudder, and Munson would turn in his grave to hear us talk like this, but it’s the way I see it.”

Huckaby added: “Speaking of Munson, there was a moment at the end of the [1980] Tennessee game, just after Herschel had made the first down on that toss sweep that sealed the win, when he said, offhandedly, ‘Have you looked at the rest of the schedule?’ That’s how I feel about Clemson. If we can somehow win in Charlotte, the rest of the schedule just sets up so nicely.”

Mark Symms, known on many Bulldogs fan forums as “Cuz,” is thinking along the same lines. “Florida is our only challenge this year,” he said. “I think we win the SEC East with our future NFL draft pick quarterback and his over-talented wide receivers. I never thought I would say that. And, even with a rebuilding secondary, our defense is the best in the league.”

Clint Ard thinks that, “with our quarterback healthy for a full season, I expect us to run the table with our SEC schedule. Florida will be the toughest game, but I agree with you they should not be as strong this year as they were in 2020. So, as is the trend, it will come down to the SEC Championship Game against Bama.” 

Hargrett’s Hasty thinks “even if the Dawgs were to stumble in the opening game (and I don’t dislike Georgia’s chances in that game at all), I feel that, chances are, we get to the SEC title game with a full load of momentum and a solid opportunity to get into the playoff.”

Hasty added: “I was brought up with enough Dooley/Munson pessimism to never say ‘this is our year,’ but we have as solid of a chance as we’ve had in a long while.”

“The secondary will be a question mark,” said Derek Luiz, one of my son’s old UGA roomies, “but we may finally have the offense and mindset to score at will and overlook those deficiencies. After the strange and bumpy 2020 season, I’m excited for 2021, but that’s the plight of the UGA fan, it seems … there’s always next year.”

Alan Cason, who runs the Dawg Bites group on Facebook, agreed that the season sets up well for Georgia: “A little snippet from [Paul] Finebaum today rang true with me. He said the only obstacle he saw was that first game. He thinks we should win. And, his comment was that, after that win, we should easily be No. 1 or No. 2.”

However, like the typical UGA fan, Cason added: “I sure hope this is the year; I am so tired of ‘waiting till next year.’”