How Kirby Smart’s Georgia Bulldogs managed to ‘Own The East’ — again

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Georgia coach Kirby Smart has managed to mesh a lot of young talented players with a small group of veterans to lead the Bulldogs to the SEC Championship Game for the second year in a row.

ATHENS — Remember way back in early August, when it was hot as the blazes and everybody was getting excited about the coming football season? That’s when we launched the second annual “Own the East” season preview series. In 20 stories — five a week for the month of August — we tried to figure out what would be the most important storylines and things that needed to happen for the Georgia Bulldogs to “own the East” again in 2018.

Now, it’s nearly Thanksgiving and it’s finally starting to cool off. And as we all are well aware at this point, the Bulldogs do indeed own the East again. In fact, Georgia clinched the division with its 34-17 win over Kentucky on Nov. 3. So, along with Alabama clinching the West on the same day with a win over LSU, it’s the earliest that the SEC Championship Game participants have both been decided in the history of divisional play.

It was great for the SEC and the respective teams to have it decided that early, but it’s not like they’ll have to do much to promote this matchup. Considering these two teams met in the same place for the National Championship just 11 months ago — and competed in a 26-23 overtime thriller — this should be one of the most anticipated SEC title games in a while. We’ll be breaking down that matchup every way possible over the next three weeks, of course.

In the meantime, back to our Own the East series. Since all that is decided now, I figured it’d be a good time to go back and review what in August we thought were going to be the most critical people, positions and things that needed to come through for the Bulldogs to reclaim the Eastern Division.

In inverse order, from 20th to 1st, let’s revisit and see how we did.

No. 20 — UGA fans/Spike Squad: The point of this one was to give props to Georgia fans, who followed the Bulldogs everywhere on their journey to the CFP Championship Game. We also wanted to call particular attention to the passionate and well-organized student group known as the Spike Squad. Coach Kirby Smart made a point to call attention to Georgia’s fans after the Bulldogs’ latest game. And, indeed, the atmosphere for the Auburn game again was electric. The fans came through.

No. 19 — QB Justin Fields: I caught a lot of flak from colleagues about putting the 5-star freshman quarterback way down here. But I simply could not see, at the time, how he could be that big of a factor for the Bulldogs’ success, since everything pointed toward Jake Fromm retaining his status as starter and primary signal-caller. Ten games in, I feel vindicated on this front, though Fields now filling an increased role as a running/short-yardage specialist.

No. 18 — TE Isaac Nauta: Honestly, I liked putting Nauta here because 18 happens to be his jersey number. But also because I’ve witnessed a decreased role for tight ends in Georgia’s passing game. Either way, Nauta continues to play exceptionally well for the Bulldogs, whether they need him to block or catch.

No. 17 — PK Rodrigo Blankenship: I heard from several people out of the box that I should have Hot Rod higher. Maybe I should. There’s no downplaying the importance of Blankenship’s role, and he’s continued to operate at a stellar level that could bring him All-America status and/or the Lou Groza Award. But overall the Bulldogs haven’t depended as much on Blankenship’s scoring ability. Not yet anyway.

No. 16 — DC Mel Tucker: The point here was Georgia’s defensive coordinator was going to have to find seven or eight new starters and develop a bunch of young talent. He has done that to an impressive level, and the Bulldogs are playing their best defense of the season heading into the 11th game.

No. 15 — DL Jay Hayes: We have to call this one what it is — a whiff. Early on, the graduate transfer from Notre Dame looked like he would be the answer to Georgia’s depth issues on the defense. He was a big part of the rotation in the opening weeks. But Hayes’ participation has decreased as the season has continued. He has remained on the dress-out roster for every game but didn’t play against Florida or Kentucky and has only two tackles all year.

No. 14 — SS J.R. Reed: This former transfer from Tulsa continues to be an integral part of what has turned out to be an exceptional secondary. A junior from Texas, Reed is third on the team with 44 tackles, has led the Bulldogs in tackles three times and makes sure that all those young guns playing around him are lined up in the right spot. His only pick this season came against South Carolina.

No. 13 — DT Tyler Clark: This 6-4, 300-pound junior from Americus has been one of the unsung heroes on a Georgia defensive front that doesn’t get credit for much. Clark has started all but two games at tackle. At a position that is asked primarily just to hold ground, he leads interior linemen with 4 tackles for loss. He also has a sack and 3 QB pressures. He has 23 stops overall.

No. 12 — WR/KR Mecole Hardman: The only problem for Hardman is he can’t get his hands on the ball enough. Early in the year, teams were able to bracket him in coverage and take away the quick hitches on the line of scrimmage. He’s been getting loose more lately as Georgia’s running game has opened up. And he finally got the punt-return TD that eluded him so often last season.

No. 11 — RB Zamir White: This prediction went out the window when the freshman nicknamed “Zeus” suffered his second ACL tear covering punts early in preseason camp. Insiders had said he was the best back on campus as an early enrollee recovering from an ACL tear of his other knee. We won’t know until next spring if he’s as good as advertised, and then only if his knees and speed holds up post rehab.

No. 10 — DE Jonathan Ledbetter: The senior captain from Tucker doesn’t blow you away with stats or game-turning plays. He just continually stays on the field, fulfills his assignments and leads with both words and actions. Ledbetter has started nine of the 10 games and is fourth on the team and first among D-linemen with 38 tackles, a sack, and 4 TFLs.

No. 9 — WR Terry Godwin: Sometimes it takes absence to recognize one’s worth to the team. That was the case with the Bulldogs’ leading returning receiver, who tried to play through a knee injury early in the season but clearly wasn’t the same explosive threat. But as Godwin has continued to heal, his impact and productivity have increased exponentially. He has started five of the last six games and is coming off a 3-catch, 83-yard effort against Auburn that included a 38-yard TD on fourth down.

No. 8 — ‘Wolf Pack’ Redo: The jury is still out about how well this group is doing. Nicknamed the “Wolf Pack” years ago by Jarvis Jones and Jordan Jenkins, Georgia’s outside linebackers are holding their own but coming up short of achieving star status. Senior D’Andre Walker, who has started every game at the “Jack” position, makes a big play every game and leads the team in sacks (5), tackles for loss (7.5) and pressures (11). But Walter Grant, his partner on the other side, has been kind of quiet. Meanwhile, freshmen Adam Anderson, Robert Beal and Brenton Cox are coming on.

No. 7 — Re-shuffled Offensive Staff: Moving James Coley from receivers to quarterbacks coach and elevating him to co-offensive coordinator while moving Jim Chaney from QBs to tight ends and having him share game-planning duty with Coley was a risky proposition, especially after Georgia won 13 of 15 games and was one of the SEC’s top offenses. But it appears to have worked. The Bulldogs have improved across the board with increases of 45 yards a game passing (221.5 ypg), 27 yards a game overall (462.2) and 1.6 more points per game (37.0).

No. 6 — LT Andrew Thomas: There was an incredible amount of confidence in Thomas to make the transition from right tackle, where he earned Freshman All-America honors, to left, even though last year’s starter at that position, Isaiah Wynn, went to the New England Patriots in the first round. But Thomas has indeed made a smooth transition to the blindside, even though early ankle injuries left him at less than 100 percent.

No. 5 — RB D’Andre Swift: In the early going, it appeared Swift might not be able to live up to the standards set by his predecessors Todd Gurley, Nick Chubb and Sony Michel. But as he has healed from groin, ankle and foot injuries, Swift is looking more like them every day. The sophomore from Philly has run for 446 yards and 4 TDs in Georgia’s last three games with 9 catches for another 74 yards receiving. And Elijah Holyfield is rocking and rolling pretty well, too.

No. 4 — LB Monty Rice: Again, injuries impacted the progress here. The sophomore from Alabama with the unenviable task of succeeding Roquan Smith continued to play despite a significant knee sprain the first half of the season. He’s getting well now and young players are developing to the point of being able to help out. But overall inside linebacker play has been deficient for the Bulldogs this season.

No. 3 — CB Deandre Baker: The senior from Miami has proven to be everything he was thought to be before the season. That is, a shut-down cornerback that keeps at least one half of the field under control for the defense. He leads the Bulldogs with 9 pass break-ups and 2 interceptions and also has 33 tackles.

No. 2 — QB Jake Fromm: Even though he’d piloted the Bulldogs to the National Championship Game as a freshman, it wasn’t a guarantee that Fromm would complete his second season as a starter. Not only has be done that but, after some early struggles on third downs, Fromm has turned that from a weakness into a strength. The Bulldogs are 23-of-40 (.575) on third-down conversions in the last three stories.

No. 1 — CEO Kirby Smart: The number one question heading into this season was whether Smart had merely capitalized on having a veteran team with a bunch of NFL-caliber seniors deciding to come back or if it was his maniacal taskmaster approach to coaching and recruiting that got the Bulldogs to the 2017 National Championship Game. This year was totally different as Smart’s challenge was to manage a reconfigured coaching staff and a youthful roster that was made up of 68.5 percent freshmen and sophomores. At this point, it’s safe to say he had done that pretty well. Georgia is on track to win 11 regular-season games in back-to-back years for the first time in history. That will require wins over UMass and Georgia Tech, and Smart will not discuss the first one before the next. But when it comes to Owning the East, that hunt is over. The Big Dog has already cornered his prey.

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