Although Tennessee enters 2016 as the presumed favorite to win the SEC East, Georgia and Florida figure to be very much in the mix.
In Kirby Smart’s first season, the Bulldogs will look to win the division for the first time since 2012. They enter the season with questions at quarterback, wide receiver and along the defensive line and have been plagued by injuries this fall.
It remains to be seen what the product on the field will look like under this new regime, but there are reasons to be optimistic. If they catch some breaks along the way, the Bulldogs are capable of winning the SEC East.
Here are five reasons a division title is within reach for Georgia.
1. Favorable schedule: An unbalanced schedule is an inherent part of college football. In the SEC, teams will play the six others in their division and two from the opposing division, one of which is rotated every season. Some teams draw the short straw when it comes to scheduling, while others get a favorable lineup.
Georgia’s schedule is no sure thing, but it looks considerably easier than Tennessee’s and about equal to Florida’s.
At first glance, there are four games that could be considered major obstacles for the Bulldogs. The season opener against North Carolina, a Sept. 24 road date with Ole Miss, an Oct. 1 home game against Tennessee and the annual meeting with Florida on Oct. 29.
Of those four, two are against the Vols and Gators and one is a non-conference game. Auburn and Georgia Tech are always circled on the schedule as well, but those teams don’t appear to present as big a challenge as in past years.
By comparison, Tennessee has a brutal slate that will define its season. The Vols will try to break an 11-game losing streak when they welcome Florida on Sept. 24, then turn right around and head to Athens to play the Bulldogs. They will then travel to play Texas A&M on Oct. 8 before returning home for its annual game against Alabama on Oct. 15.
Florida’s schedule is similar to Georgia’s. It’s two SEC West foes are LSU, its permanent partner that it will face at home, and Arkansas on the road. LSU presents the toughest challenge of those two, but Arkansas is capable of knocking off the Gators.
2. Strong offensive identity: Regardless of who starts at quarterback, Georgia already has its offensive identity. With All-SEC running back Nick Chubb (below) returning alongside his more-than-capable backup, Sony Michel, the Bulldogs are first and foremost a run-based offense.
Last season, Georgia ran the ball 486 times, and it attempted 555 rush attempts in 2014. With players like Todd Gurley, Keith Marshall, Chubb and Michel in the backfield, the Bulldogs have had an extremely dynamic running attack. Although Mark Richt is gone, it’s unlikely that Smart will try to change too much. Alabama, after all, used a similar formula.
Knowing its identity will allow Georgia to enter each contest with a strong game plan. When the score is close, the Bulldogs will be able to rely upon one of the nation’s top rushing attacks to carry them through.
Tennessee’s veteran offense is also highly capable, and a bit more balanced. But there are questions at Florida that may persist several weeks into the season.
3. Veteran secondary: This group is one of the top returning units. It consists entirely of upperclassmen and helped Georgia lead the nation in passing yards allowed per game last season.
Against teams like North Carolina, Ole Miss, Tennessee and Florida, a strong pass defense will be of great benefit. It will also allow the defensive front seven time to find a rhythm together without fear of exposing a weakness.
Players like Dominick Sanders and Quincy Mauger are tested veterans who will provide leadership for an otherwise young defense. Georgia defensive coordinator Mel Tucker is also the secondary coach, and he has been extremely impressed with that group.
4. The “unknown” factor: Having a first-time head coach creates an interesting situation for Georgia. Fans eagerly await to see what brand of football he is bringing to Athens, but they aren’t the only ones in the dark.
Because Smart has yet to make his mark as a head coach, opponents aren’t exactly sure what to expect, either. There is no film to watch, and there is no reputation to measure.
Sure, teams can look at film of Smart’s defenses at Alabama and Jim Chaney’s offenses to glimpse what types of packages the team might use, but schematic frameworks are different from a team’s mentality.
Georgia developed a reputation of failing to show up at some points during the season, whereas Alabama never appeared to have a lapse. What will the Bulldogs look like under Smart? That remains a big unknown, and it works in Georgia’s favor.
5. Improved quarterback play: This is the least predictable, but could ultimately have the biggest impact. Last year, Georgia didn’t have costly quarterback play, but it didn’t have a player at the position capable of hurting defenses.
Greyson Lambert was efficient, completing nearly 65 percent of his passes, but that’s about the only real positive he brought in his first season with the Bulldogs. Now, Georgia has a truly dynamic quarterback in 5-star freshman Jacob Eason.
How the team will handle the starting quarterback situation remains to be seen, but it’s hard to imagine them sticking with Lambert deep into the season. Eason provides the Bulldogs with at least the threat of a passing attack.
Winning as a true freshman quarterback in the SEC is underrated in terms of difficulty. It’s hard to do. Since divisional play began in 1992, no true freshman quarterback has won an SEC title.
Eason will have his fair share of rookie mistakes, but he will also have more “wow” moments with his arm than the team had last season. He should also continue to grow and learn as the fall progresses, hopefully minimizing the mistakes along the way.
With a strong running game in place, there won’t be too much thrust on Eason’s plate, should he become the starter. But he needs to take advantage of certain opportunities, not just manage the game.
The Bulldogs can trot out a real threat at quarterback for the first time since 2013, and that could make the difference in the division this year.
William McFadden covers the University of Georgia for Saturday Down South. For news on everything happening between the hedges, follow him on Twitter @willmcfadden.