What do you see as the most dangerous game on the Dawgs’ schedule this fall?
Looking ahead to a season where Kirby Smart’s eighth Georgia team is likely to be favored every regular-season game, fans are left wondering which opponent might provide the Bulldogs with an unexpectedly tough time.
I put that question to family, friends and UGA fans on social media this past week, and the results turned out just as I’d expected: Most Dawgs fans I heard from think the trip to Knoxville to face the Tennessee Vols is likely to be the toughest on the regular-season schedule, though South Carolina’s early season visit to Athens drew a surprising number of mentions.
Meanwhile, my brother Tim sees no dangerous game at all on the schedule. “The Dawgs have more talent than any team we play,” he said. “If we avoid injuries and we play every game with aggression, like the natty, we’ll pretty much roll through the season. If I had to choose, I guess it would be Tennessee, but I don’t think the Vols will be as good this year. They lost too many of their playmakers.”
Of course, the odds heavily are against a preseason exercise like this one actually managing to predict the toughest games of a season. I mean, last summer the opener against Oregon had some folks nervous, and, after that, everyone figured the biggest obstacle would be Tennessee, which came into Sanford Stadium ranked No. 1 and riding the usual wave of media hype that pops up any time a Vols team shows that it’s not terrible.
However, as it turned out, the Dawgs took care of UT pretty handily. (I know Vols fans like to credit the Athens crowd as a big factor in that win — seven false starts! — and the UT die-hards promise that Georgia will face likewise this year. But, somehow, the Dawgs prevailed the last time they visited Knoxville, so … yeah.)
Meanwhile, who would have predicted that the Dawgs’ toughest regular-season game last year would be against Missouri? OK, I’m sure someone did, because even a mediocre SEC team usually has enough talent to play the Dawgs close for at least three quarters. Plus, there’s that whole “trap game” thing, where a highly rated team facing a lesser opponent gets caught flat-footed.
Actually, last season seemed to find the Dawgs’ minds on something else during several of the games in which they were an overwhelming favorite. And my daughter Olivia, who’s been following UGA football her entire life, expects that to happen again. “There will be a game this season where we should roll, but we will scrape through by the skin of our teeth,” she said.
Thankfully, though, Smart has accrued so much talent with his elite recruiting that, even when they fiddled around for two or three quarters last season, his team prevailed — and, ultimately, ran the table. That certainly doesn’t appear likely to change any time soon.
As I said, the most frequently cited choice for most dangerous game on the schedule this year is the final regular-season conference game, the Nov. 18 bout with the Vols in Knoxville. If Tennessee and its up-tempo offense live up to their billing in the program’s third season under head coach Josh Heupel, this game could decide who will represent the SEC East (which will go away after this year) in the conference championship game.
Quarterback Hendon Hooker and star receiver Jaylin Hyatt are gone, though. Hooker’s likely successor, Joe Milton, showed promise in the Vols’ win over Clemson in the Orange Bowl, but there’s a 5-star freshman, Nico Iamaleava, waiting in the wings.
Of the betting odds released so far for the 2023 Dawgs, this one has the closest spread, with Georgia favored by 7.5 points. (All the other preseason point spreads have the Dawgs favored by double digits.)
My buddy Scott Peacocke sees Tennessee as “the only dangerous game” on the schedule. “That’s not to say they can’t possibly lose to another team — a la South Carolina in 2019,” he said, but “no other team can stay within two touchdowns of our talent.”
Joel Provano, with whom Scott and I text during UGA games, agreed. “Tennessee should be the only real challenge, unless we suffer a meltdown at quarterback, and I don’t see that happening. Carson Beck should be solid at worst, and that’s good enough to get to Atlanta. If he’s significantly better than that, we may be looking at a threepeat.”
Retired sportscaster Bill Hartman pegged the Vols as the most dangerous game “only because it is at Knoxville,” and Darrell Huckaby also pointed to Tennessee, though he added: “I don’t like the way everyone assumes wins against the others.” (Yes, he’s a longtime Georgia fan.)
Of course, as I pointed out earlier, conventional wisdom about Georgia’s toughest regular-season game was wrong last year, and, considering the vagaries of college football, that could be the case again this coming season.
So, let’s take a brief run through the rest of the schedule to see which opponent might prove to be this year’s Mizzou.
As noted earlier, South Carolina, the conference opener for Georgia on Sept. 16, also drew quite a few mentions as a potentially dangerous game, despite it being played in Athens and the Dawgs being a 24-point favorite. As former All-America UGA safety Bill Krug pointed out, the Gamecocks could be “a tough match,” because they are one of the few teams “that have a veteran QB returning.”
That quarterback is Spencer Rattler, who finished last season looking a lot better than when his team got hammered 48-7 by Georgia early on. The Gamecocks staged a couple of big upsets over Tennessee and Clemson late in the 2022 season, and appear to be trending upward under head coach Shane Beamer, a former UGA staffer.
UGA fan Mark Symms also sees the Border Bash as an early season trap game. “Coach Beamer has his team believing they can beat any team,” Mark said. “We had better watch out when playing them. They are going to play hard and tough. I won’t be surprised if they are ahead at the half. We will need another intense Kirby halftime speech to put a W at the end. There’s no doubt we have better players. But the game is tied up at the opening kickoff. ... We need to shut down their offense from the beginning and watch out for the trickeration.”
Stuart Townsend agreed: “USC has a great coach, and I truly believe they’re on the way up.”
The next most-mentioned worrisome opponent on the Dawgs’ schedule was Ole Miss. Georgia is a 19.5-point favorite over the Rebel-Black Bear-Landsharks, who most likely will be led by returning QB Jaxson Dart, though it could be Oklahoma State transfer Spencer Sanders. Ole Miss also has productive running back Quinshon Judkins, and had a lot of players coming and going via the portal in the offseason, so, at this point, they’re a bit of a mystery.
However, I get the impression the main reason some UGA fans are wary of Ole Miss is the possibility of brattish head coach Lane Kiffin pulling some trick out of his sleeve.
There’s also Kentucky, which played Georgia close last year in a 16-6 loss, prompting Smart to say afterward that, sometimes, “you gotta win ugly.” Will Levis is gone at QB for UK, but North Carolina State transfer Devin Leary, a sixth-year senior, is a proven passing threat, though he’s coming off a season-ending injury. And, instead of a freezing, windy day in Lexington, the game will be Between the Hedges, where the Dawgs are 24-point favorites to beat the Wildcats.
The annual hate-fest in Jacksonville sometimes proves to be closer than expected, but Georgia’s a 21.5-point favorite there, and with the Gators having to replace Anthony Richardson at quarterback (Wisconsin transfer Graham Mertz is the likely pick), that one doesn’t look too threatening.
UGA fan Dusty Carnes, meanwhile, believes that if the Dawgs “can stay healthy, focused and humble,” nobody can beat them. But, he added, if he had to pick a most dangerous game, Georgia playing “at Auburn, and with a new starting QB and his first true road game, that would be it.”
You never can say never in the SEC, but the Dawgs, who won 42-10 last year, are an 18.5-point favorite on the Plains.
And you can’t count out Missouri, which put a scare into the Dawgs last season in a 26-22 game where Georgia played its worst football of the season and didn’t take the lead in the game until there was only 3:12 left to play.
As for the rest of the schedule, despite Georgia fooling around last year with Kent State before finally winning 39-22, I couldn’t find anyone who thinks Football Championship Subdivision school UT Martin or UAB of the American Athletic Conference are a threat to the Dawgs. But I did have one fan each peg Ball State of the Mid-American Conference and SEC doormat Vanderbilt as potential trap games, though I wonder whether those might have been tongue-in-cheek replies.
Finally, one of the reassuring things about having another UGA football season on the horizon is knowing that, when it comes to them Dawgs, some things never change. My brother Jonathan always predicts an undefeated national championship season (he finally got it last year!).
And, as any listener to the Bulldogs radio network knows, Jeff Dantzler always has one overwhelming concern about any season: beating the Jackets. Last year, the Trade School capitalized on an unexpectedly slow start by the Dawgs in Athens to make things close for a half, before falling 37-14. So, Jeff’s entirely expected answer to my query this year was: “Gotta beat Tek.”
‘UGA ATHLETICS IN YOUR TOWN’
My friend Jason Hasty of the Hargrett Library in Athens is taking some of the UGA athletics artifacts in their archive on the road to public libraries around the state again this summer, starting this week.
Among the items he’ll be showing this time around are one of Kirby Smart’s game day outfits (including the visor, polo shirt, khaki pants and shoes), Vince Dooley’s college football all-star jersey from 1953, a football from the 1930 Georgia-Georgia Tech football game (“We won,” he says), a pair of track shoes from the 1950s, a football helmet worn by Doug McFalls in 1964 (“This is the earliest helmet we have after Coach Dooley redesigned the uniform”), other items from the Smart era, and some women’s sports artifacts.
Here’s the schedule: 10 a.m.-3 p.m. May 26 at the Monroe-Walton Library in Monroe; 11 a.m.-3 p.m. May 31 at the Tucker-Reid Cofer Library in Tucker; 10 a.m.-3 p.m. June 9 at the Eatonton-Putnam Library & Old School History Museum in Eatonton; 11 a.m.-3 p.m. July 14 at the RT Jones Public Library in Canton; 12-5 p.m. July 19 at the Northwest Public Library in Albany; 10 a.m.-3 p.m. July 20 at the Southwest Regional Library in Bainbridge (where Smart grew up!); and 11 a.m.-3 p.m. July 28 at the Mountain Regional Library in Young Harris.
If you’re near one of those stops, check it out!