The bar in Athens is a whole lot higher now than it was a year ago. That much is obvious.

Last year, Georgia’s goal was simple. End Florida’s run atop the SEC East and get a chance to win a conference title. If Florida and Georgia were racing last year, the Gators turned around and went the wrong way while the Dawgs sped past in a Lamborghini.

Now, the goal is to keep the foot on the gas. No longer are they the “good not great” program that’s looking for that one magical season. That was 2017.

Nothing will be magical from here on out under Kirby Smart. The Dawgs are no longer the surprising team that will go on a storybook run. They’ll be favored to win most of their games by several touchdowns, and if they don’t, they’ll hear about it all week.

But life is more fun with expectations.

2017 regular season record: 11-1 (7-1)

Fields or Fromm?

In my opinion, this really isn’t the debate right now. Jake Fromm is the guy who just led Georgia somewhere it hadn’t been in nearly 4 decades. If you hoped for a best case scenario with 5-star freshman Justin Fields, it would be exactly what Fromm did last year. So why would Georgia suddenly deviate from that?

To me, this is going to be more about the outside noise surrounding the quarterback situation. From now on, every time that Fromm has a rough half, we’re going to see the CBS shots of Fields on the sidelines. Smart will have to answer the questions about if there’s any thought about changing things up at quarterback. As much as players and coaches can say that doesn’t matter, it can certainly be difficult to block out.

Credit: Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports

The more interesting dynamic is how early we see Fields in games. The thought is that Fromm is going to be the starter until the game is in hand — that can be early in the second half — and he gives way to Fields. I’m here for that. I want to see how Fields hangs in the pocket in live game action and if he can make the big-time throws we saw him make as a recruit.

As for now, though, this is Fromm’s team. Period.

The new-look defense or whatever you want to call it

Georgia would have looked vastly different had it just lost Roquan Smith. But that wasn’t the case. The Dawgs also replaced Lorenzo Carter, Davin Bellamy, Reggie Carter, Malkom Parrish, John Atkins, Trenton Thompson and a bunch of other players I’m probably forgetting.

The point is, this defense will have a new identity. The question is what exactly that will look like. The Dawgs’ strength last year was at the linebacker position. They could afford Natrez Patrick’s off-field issues because of the depth they had at the position. This year, he needs to be on the straight and narrow path.

The good news is that Georgia still has proven playmakers at each level with Jonathan Ledbetter and D’Andre Walker in the front seven and with J.R. Reed and Deandre Baker leading the defensive backfield. Can one of them make the impact that Smith did? I wouldn’t count on it. He was as good as it gets.

Georgia’s defense had a nastiness about it last year. It didn’t take long to see that they were on a different level compared with the rest of the division. Will this year’s group impose its will that consistently? That remains to be seen.

The 2nd-and-26 hangover narrative

It’s there. Whether Georgia players or coaches want to admit it, that narrative is sitting right there.

If the Dawgs fall at South Carolina or if they just don’t look like national championship contenders out of the gate, people are going to wonder if there are any lingering effects of 2nd-and-26. If there’s noticeable a lack of confidence, or if the secondary doesn’t look up to snuff, that question will be asked.

My theory, though, is that Georgia’s secondary is going to come out hungry. I’m of the belief that as a former defensive back, the blown Cover 2 has been eating at Smart all season. Subconsciously, I think that’s been fueling him to be even more of a perfectionist than ever.

This has the makings of a big year for Reed and Baker. Both could establish themselves as All-Americans and be the backbone of Georgia’s second consecutive Playoff push. It was a major blessing to have both back, and from the sound of it, both are determined to end their careers on a different note than the one they watched unfold from the far side of the field at Mercedes-Benz Stadium.

If the Georgia secondary stock is down because of 2nd-and-26, I’m buying as much of it as possible.

Credit: Butch Dill-USA TODAY Sports

Game-by-game predictions

Week 1: vs. Austin Peay (W)

The only question is how many quarters will Fields play. I’ll set the over/under at 1.75.

Week 2: at South Carolina (W)

I can’t get there yet. I’m not willing to say that even with an electric Williams-Brice Stadium, South Carolina can hang with Georgia at the line of scrimmage. Georgia still has plenty of talent up front, and I don’t think the Gamecocks will:

  • A) Keep Jake Bentley upright for 4 quarters
  • B) Stop a versatile Georgia running game
  • C) Get the the headliner win they’ve been searching for

Week 3: vs. Middle Tennessee (W)

This could be a nice opportunity to get Zamir White and James Cook involved. If there’s a reason to stay to the end of this one, it’ll be watching these guys play alongside Fields.

Week 4: at Missouri (W)

A whole lot of people are going to bring up how Drew Lock torched the Georgia secondary in the first half last year. He did. He was on fire. And what happened? Mizzou still lost by 4 possessions. When you lose the rushing battle 370-59, that tends to happen. Nick Chubb and Sony Michel might be gone, Georgia ain’t losing the battle on the ground this year, either.

Week 5: vs. Tennessee (W)

Last year, I called Smart “the SEC East grim reaper” of coaches. Not that he was the sole reason that Butch Jones was fired, but Smart’s squad showed how far apart the two programs were. As much as I like Jeremy Pruitt, he’s not overcoming that big of a disparity in a year and pulling off a miracle in Athens. Here’s hoping we at least get to fire up the Pruitt vs. Aaron Murray feud again.

Week 6: vs. Vanderbilt (W)

So the week before this matchup, Vandy plays Tennessee State. If and when the Commodores get a win, I hope we have a soundbite like this ahead of the Georgia game.

Week 7: at LSU (L)

Yes, I’m on record now. I think LSU pulls off the upset in an unbelievable atmosphere in Baton Rouge. The LSU defense comes out and gives a 2017 Auburn-like effort in the headliner showdown. Georgia, perhaps lulled into a bit of offensive overconfidence after some extremely favorable defensive matchups to start the year, struggles to establish balance. Fromm gets harassed all night, Joe Burrow does enough to keep Georgia off-balanced and Ed Orgeron gets the biggest win of his LSU tenure.

Week 8: Bye

Week 9: vs. Florida (W)*

The bye week comes at a perfect time after the LSU game. With a chance to heal up some midseason bumps and bruises, Georgia comes out clicking on all cylinders in Jacksonville. It isn’t quite the beatdown it was last year, but D’Andre Swift and the ground game dominates a gassed Florida defense and the Dawgs win comfortably.

Week 10: at Kentucky (W)

I don’t like the odds of the Wildcats’ offense thriving against elite defenses. That’s not a knock on Benny Snell, who is clearly one of the top backs in America. That’s a knock on how one-dimensional I think Kentucky will be. Walker and the Dawgs shut down Kentucky in convincing fashion. They probably lock up the division in the process, too.

Week 11: vs. Auburn (W)

I don’t trust Auburn to beat an elite team away from Jordan-Hare. It’s as simple as that. Maybe that narrative changes this year and the Tigers start matching the same level we saw at home in 2017. But in what’s easily Georgia’s biggest home game of the year, it’ll be Sanford Stadium that provides the home-field advantage needed to fuel a Georgia win. Perhaps it even adds to Fromm’s Heisman Trophy campaign.

Week 12: vs. UMass (W)

Somehow, UMass stayed within 2 scores of Tennessee and Mississippi State last year. I’ll bet whatever is in my wallet that doesn’t happen in Georgia this year.

Week 13: vs. Georgia Tech (W)

So I know that the pregame narrative will be how “Georgia Tech did beat Smart between the hedges already,” but I’m not buying that. As I said, I’m not betting against Smart’s defense to fall to a one-dimensional offense until further notice. I’m just not. This rivalry is entering a new, extremely one-sided phase. I don’t think it’s one that Yellow Jackets fans will particularly enjoy.

*at TIAA Bank Stadium in Jacksonville

2018 Projection: 11-1 (7-1)

Final Standings: 1st in SEC East

Credit: Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports


Just get to Atlanta.

That’s the preliminary goal for Georgia year in, year out. At least it is until further notice. Coming off a year in which the Dawgs looked so vastly superior compared to the rest of that division, that doesn’t change. Another perfect mark against the East serves as a reminder that trendy preseason picks like South Carolina aren’t on Georgia’s level yet.

The better question is going to be whether Georgia is on Alabama’s level. If I’m betting on one thing this preseason, it’s that we get an Alabama-Georgia SEC Championship. That’d be a new chapter in this rivalry. At this point, it feels inevitable.

Georgia’s year will be defined by that. Nobody will think twice when the Dawgs stay in the top 3 nationally, or when they have the division all but locked up in the first week of November. This year is about showing that all the hype surrounding Georgia’s offseason was legit. If Smart really is building Alabama East, Georgia won’t much of a step back at all.

But we’ve heard this before. Alabama made staying atop the college football mountain look far easier than it really is.

Let’s see what Georgia has in store for an encore.


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