Editor’s note: Our annual Crystal Ball series continues with Georgia and the SEC East. Coming Wednesday: Kentucky.

Title or bust?

For some Georgia fans — emphasis on “some” — that’s the 2019 mindset. The angst of ending the program’s 38-year national title drought in 2019 is predicated on a few things.

For starters, Jake Fromms don’t grow on trees. Georgia fans know that the junior signal-caller is special and that he has an NFL future ahead. There’s at least a decent chance that 2019 is his last year in Athens. The same probably goes for D’Andre Swift and Andrew Thomas.

Despite all the 5-star talent that Kirby Smart keeps assembling, some wonder if the window is closing. After all, there’s no guarantee a program will stay in the top 3 every year.

But other Georgia fans are approaching this a bit more reasonably. Is a national title the goal? Absolutely. It would be crazy to think it wasn’t after the way the past 2 years played out. Does that mean Smart’s window will close if it doesn’t happen this year? Of course not, even if Fromm and Swift leave.

As great as that aforementioned trio is, the recruiting combined with the continued SEC East dominance should have Georgia in the title conversation beyond 2019. Georgia is recruiting at an Alabama-like level, and entering Year 4 of the Smart era, that doesn’t appear to be changing anytime soon.

So title or bust? I’m not there.

Here’s where I am with this year’s Georgia team:

2018 record: 11-3 (7-1), 1st in SEC East

The receiver issues

No team has made the Playoff after replacing its top 5 receivers from the previous year. With the dismissal of Jeremiah Holloman, Georgia will attempt to become the first to do that.

Here’s the breakdown that I’ve been using this offseason to show the lack of experience at receiver that UGA has:

  • Top 5 on team in receiving yards from 2018 are gone
  • Running back D’Andre Swift has most receiving yards of any returning player
  • No returning wide receiver had more than 9 catches for UGA in 2018
  • No returning WR averaged more than 10 yards per game in 2018
  • 2 returning WRs who caught a pass in 2018
  • Of total receiving yards (3,177) in 2018, UGA returns 24% of that production
  • Of total receiving touchdowns (34) in 2018, UGA returns 18% of that production

That’s, uh, suboptimal.

The good news, which many have noted, is that talent isn’t lacking at the position.

Former 5-star recruit and Cal transfer Demetris Robertson seems like the ultimate wild card not just for Georgia, but in all of college football. He struggled in Georgia’s system last year, and he couldn’t crack a deep rotation. That won’t fly this year. Offensive coordinator James Coley said that Robertson has made strides, which suggests the speedster is ready to be a factor on the outside.

There’s also the promising 5-star freshman George Pickens, who signed with Georgia in February after being committed to Auburn. He figures to be called upon from the jump. And for what it’s worth, Pickens was a higher-rated wideout than Amari Cooper. If he even flirts with the type of freshman season that Cooper had for Alabama in 2012, Georgia would be thrilled.

Getting on the same page with a veteran quarterback like Fromm has been a major focus the past few months for this new crop of wideouts.

Zamir White’s highly-anticipated debut

Speaking of 5-star debuts, Georgia fans have to be fired up to see White finally get on the field. After a couple of major leg injuries, White’s time is now. We didn’t get to see him in the spring game, and it might be limited touches to start the season, but the former No. 1 running back recruit in America has all sorts of hype to be the next great Georgia back.

What should expectations of White be? I wouldn’t say he’ll have a role like Todd Gurley had as a freshman. Swift is too established for that to happen. But it’s not crazy to think that as long as he’s healthy, White can do some of the things that Swift did as a freshman in 2017. That is, catch passes out of the backfield, hit the home-run play and provide the perfect change of pace.

You know that White is going to be eager after missing all of last year. The good news is that with James Cook and Brian Herrien, the backfield depth isn’t lacking. Maybe Coley just eases White into things and we see his role expand as the year progresses.

Whatever the case, I’m just glad that we’ll finally see one of the most hyped skill player recruits of recent memory.

Can Smart finally shake the in-game decision issues?

It’s not the pressure of winning and winning big that’s winning. Smart is only in Year 4, but he’s plenty familiar with that.

There’s mounting pressure of everyone questioning his in-game decision-making. The fake punt in the SEC Championship will be a punchline for years. Not adjusting the defense to Tua Tagovailoa in the 2017 College Football Playoff National Championship will always haunt him. Shoot, you could go back to that decision to put Lorenzo Carter (his best pass rusher) in the back of the end zone for the Tennessee Hail Mary in 2016 as a knock against the Georgia head coach.

Whether Smart wants to admit it or not, this is something that looms over him. The fact that Georgia couldn’t close out Alabama twice in championship settings will be in the back of everyone’s mind even if the Dawgs go 12-0 and win every game 58-0.

Smart has raised the bar so high already that he’ll be scrutinized as much as anyone in America. He’s no longer the “up-and-coming” guy. He’s the “it’s your turn to win one” guy. And if it looks like Smart’s decision-making hurts Georgia in another key moment this year, that feeling won’t go away.

That’s pressure, alright.

Game-by-game predictions

Week 1: at Vanderbilt (W)

I won’t be surprised to see Vandy have a couple of offensive fireworks in this one. Ke’Shawn Vaughn could break off a big run. But for 60 minutes, there’s no chance the Commodores are winning that battle at the line of scrimmage.

Week 2: vs. Murray State (W)

Can this be a big White game? Oooooh, or maybe a big Stetson Bennett IV game? Has that ever been said?

Week 3: vs. Arkansas State (W)

Maybe if Malzahn came back and coached Arkansas State, this one could stay within 30 points? But beware of Georgia taking its foot off the gas and/or showing very little in anticipation of next week’s showdown against Notre Dame.

Week 4: vs. Notre Dame (W)

I think the Irish got a bad rap last year. Clemson didn’t “expose” Notre Dame. The Irish ran into an all-time great team and kept them at bay for longer than people care to remember. With Ian Book back, Notre Dame won’t back down even if Georgia runs out to an early lead. But I expect the Dawgs to use the ground game to wear down that Irish defense and ultimately win by double digits.

Week 5: Bye

Week 6: at Tennessee (W)

This has “trendy upset pick” written all over it. It’s the “on the rise” home team facing the team that owned the division the past 2 years. Will the Vols get that breakthrough win? Not today. This is the type of test that Fromm can ace. He makes smart decisions and settles the offense down in the raucous atmosphere. Last year’s too-close-for-comfort 4th quarter provides all the motivation needed for UGA to not sleepwalk through this one.

Week 7: vs. South Carolina (W)

Remember last year when people spent the offseason trying to convince themselves that South Carolina was going to knock off Georgia and take control of the SEC East? Ah, fun times. You can’t be 1-dimensional against Smart’s defense. I see that hurting the Gamecocks in this one.

Week 8: vs. Kentucky (W)

For what it’s worth, I believe too many people have written off Kentucky. I believe the Cats aren’t going back to the SEC basement. But maybe I just have too many visions of that deadly Swift cut in Lexington last year to pull the trigger on an upset.

In Athens, Georgia should still be able to overpower Kentucky on both sides of the ball. Terry Wilson will likely be forced to throw a lot. He could have a few moments, but I still think that sets up well for a comfortable Georgia win.

Week 9: Bye

Week 10: vs. Florida (W) (in Jacksonville)

Ain’t no party like the Cocktail Party cuz the Cocktail Party don’t stop. By that, I mean it’s a year-round Twitter fight between these fan bases. So why won’t Florida be able to get on Georgia’s level just yet? Well, for starters, I think the Dawgs are even more equipped than last year to handle Florida’s defensive pressure. A better offensive line and a more experienced Fromm will help with that. I also think Georgia’s secondary is going to force Feleipe Franks to be perfect. Can he be perfect for an entire afternoon against that good of a defense? I still have my doubts (I realize Michigan was rated higher, but injuries to Devin Bush and Rashan Gary hurt that unit a ton). Give me Georgia to continue its total division dominance and own the Cocktail Party conversation for another year.

Week 11: vs. Mizzou (W)

I think you need to be able to stretch the field vertically to beat Georgia. As of right now, I need to see Kelly Bryant do that with accuracy before I even think about the Tigers pulling off the upset. The Mizzou defensive line that really hung well with Georgia’s offensive line last year will have a very different group up front. And if Georgia does need the passing game do the heavy lifting like last year, that shouldn’t be a problem. In 2 games against Barry Odom’s defense, Fromm totaled 586 passing yards and 6 total TDs. He adds to that and keeps Georgia’s unbeaten start alive.

Week 12: at Auburn (L)

Last year in Georgia’s crystal ball, I predicted a loss to LSU. I thought a favorable start to the year wouldn’t magnify the Dawgs’ mistakes, and that in a wild atmosphere in Death Valley, LSU would. I think we get a little bit of that against Auburn. It won’t be a repeat of the 2017 blowout, but I think that Auburn’s defensive line puts Georgia in the rare position of “A,” not having massive running lanes and “B,” not having nearly flawless protection up front. The Dawgs struggle to hit the home run in the passing game and drop their first game of the year.

Week 13: vs. Texas A&M (W)

An angry Georgia team shows up to Sanford Stadium ready to close out the conference slate. Against a vulnerable secondary, Fromm delivers one of the best games of his career. Monty Rice proves to be the perfect spy for Kellen Mond, which keeps the A&M offense limited. Georgia closes SEC play with another ticket punched to Atlanta.

Week 14: vs. Georgia Tech (W)

It’s a rebuilding year for Georgia Tech. In the first year of the post-Paul Johnson era, it’s hard to envision a scenario in which Geoff Collins leads the Yellow Jackets to some massive upset between the hedges. Not with Georgia still holding on to Playoff hopes. Smart records his 3rd consecutive unbeaten season at home and the Dawgs roll into the SEC Championship.

2019 projection: 11-1 (7-1, 1st in SEC East)


Yeah … so what’s next?

I’m guessing that would be the reaction Georgia fans would have to reading a regular-season projection like this. An 11-1 season is essentially the prologue. What happens after that is how this team will be remembered.

But before we dig into that, can we at least process what 3 consecutive trips to Atlanta would mean? Alabama from 2014-16 is the only team to accomplish that feat this century. Another unbeaten season against the division — as I predicted — would absolutely confirm that Georgia is here to stay. Just in case there was any doubt.

In a regular season that could be full of lopsided wins, this year’s team has to find its flaws. To reach that level that Georgia wants to get to, I fully expect more of Smart blasting players during 42-7 games. As he should. You don’t beat Alabama and win a national title by developing bad habits.

Georgia has a bad habit heading into 2019. It resides in Tuscaloosa.

The goal is simple and more obvious than ever — finally rid of that bad habit come December.