At this point, looking ahead to the college football season still requires a bunch of ifs and maybes, as quite a few high-profile programs have reported players testing positive for COVID-19 (including Texas, Alabama, Clemson, LSU, Auburn, Ole Miss and Florida State).
The surge in positive tests even resulted in Kansas State suspending workouts by its players for two weeks, with Houston and Boise State also among those temporarily suspending voluntary activities.
Georgia has chosen not to announce its testing results on the players working out in Athens, but the assumption here is that, since workouts haven’t been suspended, the positive tests, if any, have been few and isolated. (I honestly don’t believe UGA would continue workouts and endanger the health of additional players if it was seeing a flood of positive tests like Clemson, which has reported 37 football players testing positive for COVID-19.)
So, it’s looking like the college football season indeed will be played this fall, if the pandemic news doesn’t get a lot worse in the next month or so.
As for whether fans will be in attendance, the prospects of that look a lot dicier, though UGA officials have indicated they hope to be able to let fans in — unless circumstances dictate otherwise. The latest from athletic director Greg McGarity is that they’ll wait a while to make that call.
“Our goal is to be able to communicate our plan in early August,” McGarity wrote in his most recent McGarity’s Minutes message to fans and donors. “We want to wait as long as possible to make important decisions and ask for patience during this process. Time is on our side right now and we want to have the latest information available to inform and educate everyone on the 2020 season.”
Still, even if fans aren’t in attendance, there appears to be a good chance the games will be played. Along those lines, this week, sports oddsmakers announced their strength-of-schedule rankings (Georgia’s schedule is rated the 25th toughest in college football), which got me and some other fans talking about which games are likely to be the Dawgs’ toughest in 2020.
Of course, trying to handicap the upcoming season in the absence of spring practices for most programs, including UGA, is a crapshoot, even for the professional oddsmakers in Las Vegas.
Still, based mostly on returning talent, coaching track records and gut feelings, below is how I see Georgia’s schedule. Feel free to share your own views!
Bama obviously is the toughest game.
As I noted recently, it would be a major upset if Kirby Smart’s Dawgs knocked off Nick Saban’s Crimson Tide on the road. Alabama is a 7.5-point favorite and has won the past five times the two schools have met on the gridiron. The last time Georgia won was the last time it visited Tuscaloosa, in 2007.
It doesn’t help that the conference opener for both teams will be the third game of the season for Georgia’s new offensive coordinator, new quarterback and mostly new offensive line.
Still, it should be a pretty competitive game. The Dawgs are expected to have one of the nation’s best defenses. Bama, meanwhile, lost some key players on both sides of the ball from last season (including star receiver Jerry Jeudy), and the Tide may be a little uncertain at quarterback — last season’s backup-turned-starter, Mac Jones, is likely to be challenged by new five-star arrival Bryce Young. But, likely Heisman candidate Najee Harris is back for his senior season at running back, and receivers DeVonta Smith and Jaylen Waddle are major threats. Bama’s defense, hampered by injuries last year, is a work in progress.
However, while Georgia’s Smart recruits at a ridiculously high level, so does Saban. So, if there’s a game where the Dawgs don’t have a talent advantage, it’s this one.
Playing in Tuscaloosa in a crazy season that didn’t have a spring practice probably would be Georgia’s biggest challenge anywhere on the schedule, but coming in just the third game will make it even tougher for Smart to become the first of Saban’s assistants who’s now a head coach to defeat his mentor.
Beyond the Bama game, I think Florida is heavily overhyped, but I tend to lean toward the annual grudge match with Gators in Jacksonville as being the Dawgs’ second-toughest game.
As usual, the SEC East probably comes down to this game. Vegas oddsmakers see Georgia winning its fourth consecutive division title, with the Dawgs a slight, 3.5-point favorite in the Halloween game against Florida, but a lot of national sports commentators have decided this is the year Dan Mullen’s Gators topple the Dawgs.
Georgia will be going for four in a row over Florida, but the Gators steadily have improved since Mullen’s arrival in 2018, and last year’s game was decided by a single touchdown, so it should be a tight one.
Florida lost leading rusher Lamical Perine, but they do have several experienced backs, plus five-star Miami transfer Lorenzo Lingard. The Gators also have stability at quarterback, with fifth-year senior Kyle Trask back. Last year’s leading receiver, Van Jefferson, is gone, but the Gators do return tight end Kyle Pitts and some other veteran receivers.
On the other hand, the Gators’ offensive line has a lot of room for improvement from last year, and the defense lost some key players, although it still should be pretty good.
However, there remains a definite talent gap between the Gators and Dawgs. Also, Mullen never has beaten Smart, and, best of all, it’s always third-and-Grantham. So, I’m not sold on this being Florida’s year.
The next toughest game for Georgia, I believe, will be Auburn’s visit to Athens on Oct. 10, the 125th meeting of the two teams, and the first time in more than eight decades that the Deep South’s Oldest Rivalry has been played in October (thanks to the SEC acquiescing to Auburn’s continual griping about having to meet Georgia and Bama back-to-back late in the season).
The oddsmakers have Georgia as a 7.5-point home favorite, and the Dawgs have won the past three meetings (starting with the 2017 SEC Championship Game), and 12 of the past 15.
Auburn does have QB Bo Nix back after an up-and-down freshman season, and a couple of the SEC’s best receivers, but the offensive line is a rebuilding project under a new coach (much like Georgia), they have a new offensive coordinator (like Georgia) and they lost their leading rusher (like Georgia). Unlike Georgia, the Tigers’ defense also took more of a hit from departures.
My brother Tim summed it up: “I think Florida will be the tougher of the two. I don’t think either will be as good as they were last year. Especially Auburn, losing that defensive line that kept them in games last year.”
Then, there’s Tennessee, another media darling thanks to a strong finish (after an awful start) last season, and improved recruiting.
Tennessee’s offensive line should be one of its strengths, helping a resurgent running game, but the Vols lost three of their four best receivers, and quarterback is still an unsettled spot, though the inconsistent Jarrett Guarantano did play better late in the season last year. The defense looks pretty good, though it has a few holes to fill, too.
Still, it appears Jeremy Pruitt’s Vols aren’t quite ready to challenge Georgia and Florida in the East.
My friend Scott put it this way: “Tennessee is a bit of a wild card. The defense will be solid. They certainly have a first-class OL, which is always a good starting point on offense. Their problem is at QB, but [offensive coordinator Jim] Chaney’s track record seems to be his offenses and QBs take off in his second year. I’m glad we have them in Athens this year.”
Some Georgia fans also worry just a little about the opening game at Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta against Virginia. As my buddy Joel put it: “I think Virginia might be a sleeper. They’re a decent team, it’s the first game, and the lack of a spring practice hurts us worse than most teams, because we have a new QB and a new offense. I expect our defense will win the day, though.”
I tend to agree with the oddsmakers, who have the Dawgs as a 17.5-point favorite over Bronco Mendenhall’s ’Hoos. That’s probably because Virginia lost the sparkplug of its improved offense last year, dual-threat QB Bryce Perkins, plus a couple of key receivers. The Cavaliers, last year’s ACC Coastal Division champion, do return all five starters on their offensive line, but the Virginia running game (aside from Perkins) wasn’t all that impressive last year, so that’s something of a question mark, too. If Todd Monken’s Georgia offense has too many early hiccups, this one could get interesting, but I think the Dawgs are a solid favorite.
Filling out the less-challenging remainder of Georgia’s schedule: East Tennessee State, Louisiana-Monroe, Vanderbilt, Missouri, South Carolina (which probably will suffer mighty retribution for last year’s shocking upset), Kentucky and Georgia Tech.
So, that’s a look at the toughest games, assuming the season gets played. As I indicated above, I think the season will begin on time; whether it runs through to completion, and we see a postseason, is a much bigger question, especially considering a lot of schools, including UGA, aren’t planning to have classes on campus after Thanksgiving.
And, then there’s the uncertainty about what might happen if key players end up testing positive for COVID-19 once the season has begun.
Even if we do start the season on time, can you imagine how fluid the roster situation potentially could be? As Scott said, “We could wake up the morning of the Bama game, for example, to news that Jamie Newman and other starters on offense have tested positive and won’t play … It’ll be like having in-season injury attrition on steroids!”
Scott’s right. Any way you look at it, it’s going to be a crazy season.