Georgia football: 10 biggest questions as Bulldogs begin quest for three-peat
I had a chance to step out onto the Dooley Field grass at Sanford Stadium this week and let me tell you — it’s in Week 1 form.
The grass is pristinely manicured, green and fully prepared to be destroyed by 22 extremely large student-athletes pushing against each other.
The team might not be quite ready yet, but it is fully immersed in preseason practice now as it prepares for a date with Tennessee-Martin under the lights on Sept. 2.
As we try to round back into midseason form ourselves, let’s get started with 2 handfuls of questions that have been rolling around my mind over the past few months of no football.
Will Carson Beck be Georgia’s next prolific quarterback?
Remember a couple years ago when Beck, a redshirt freshman, was reportedly Georgia’s next man up to fill in for injured starting quarterback JT Daniels in the 2nd game of the 2021 season?
It feels so long ago, but we all know the story.
Stetson Bennett got the start, passed for 5 touchdowns, won the starting job and put together one of the most storybook careers in college football history.
Now, we’re back to Square One. Beck is the presumptive QB1 heading into the 2023 football season. After a few strong backup performances a year ago and an impressive spring game showing, expectations for the fair-haired signal-caller hover somewhere between modest and upstart Heisman Trophy contender.
My take: Beck has made a jump since his early days at Georgia and would have been one of the better quarterbacks in the SEC a season ago if any ill had befallen Bennett. That said, Georgia has the insurance policy of a highly-recruited, athletic backup in Brock Vandagriff, who makes up in raw talent what he lacks in live game experience.
How healthy is the running game?
Over the course of his career, Kendall Milton has been a perpetual member of Georgia’s injury notes. Immensely talented, Milton has carried the ball more than 10 times in a game just once in his college career. Injuries have limited his availability and, while expectations should be high for a guy who averaged 7 yards per carry last year, you have to wonder about the durability.
Branson Robinson is nursing a foot injury heading into fall camp, and Andrew Paul is coming off a torn ACL.
The good news is there’s depth. Daijun Edwards, Georgia’s 2nd leading rusher last year, is back for his senior year. Roderick Robinson is a name Bulldogs fans have gotten excited about.
No one is really concerned about the position just yet, but it’s worth keeping an eye on.
Will Mike Bobo finally learn how to run an offense?
Obviously, I kid.
If you listened to many Georgia fans, you’d think this guy had never guided the most prolific offense in the program’s history. You’d think he wasn’t a key component of the development of quarterbacks David Greene, Matthew Stafford or Aaron Murray. You’d think the loss of Todd Monken and the decision to retain Bobo as the new offensive coordinator was next to high treason against the future of Georgia football.
It’s not. Bobo is a good coordinator, and Georgia’s offense will be fine.
The question is more in what changes can we expect. The Bulldogs loved Bennett’s mobility the past 2 years but seem to be on the verge of going into 2023 with a pure pocket passer with a big arm. Will anything change about Georgia’s approach to the passing game with a different style of quarterback under center?
What happens if they lose a game?
Allow yourself to consider this possibility, Georgia fans. What does happen?
A couple things: Yes, this schedule is terrible. No, it’s not entirely Georgia’s fault. Yes, there are challenging games on the schedule. And no, a loss isn’t a death sentence to the team’s nation title hopes.
But will those hopes be on life support? Probably.
The thinking is this: As it stands — and it can always change — Georgia doesn’t have enough strong opponents to have much room for error if it finds itself outside the conference championship game. If, for example, the Bulldogs lose to Tennessee at the end of the season and the Volunteers end up facing LSU or Alabama in Atlanta, there are few arguments to say Georgia should still slide into the 4-team College Football Playoff.
They are 2-time defending champions, which buys a little grace, and I can absolutely imagine a scenario where games against South Carolina or Ole Miss become top 10-15 matchups.
But the window is undoubtedly small.
Are off-field issues a distraction—or a rallying cry?
It’s no secret Georgia has had a tumultuous offseason.
Beginning with the tragic deaths of player Devin Willock and staffer Chandler LeCroy in a car wreck on the night after the team celebrated its championship victory, the team faced an offseason full of legal challenges and explosive newspaper reports.
The team took the unprecedented step to push back against the latter, and by all accounts appears undeterred in its insistence of being in the right.
This is in no way intended to trivialize anything that has gone on off the field for the Bulldogs, but I’d argue the team could see this as a distraction or a rallying point.
If there’s one thing Kirby Smart does better than arguably anyone in college football, it’s galvanize his team behind perceptions of disrespect.
Can this team find its pass rush?
Georgia had 35 total sacks last year, which isn’t a complete train wreck for a defense that was otherwise one of the best in the country. When broken down to sacks per game, the Bulldogs ranked No. 49 in the category nationally.
The team was a top-10 defense by any definition in 2022 and is expected to once again be among the best. Even with the loss of players such as Jalen Carter and Nolan Smith, some suggest the unit is closer to the 2021 all-timer unit than the 2022 ho-hum-just-great one.
A strong pass rush would take it to another level.
Jamon Dumas-Johnson is back to extremely high expectations. Nazir Stackhouse will plug up a lot of the space vacated by Carter. Mykel Williams was the team leader in sacks as a true freshman last year and should improve in his 2nd year.
How many receiving yards will Brock Bowers have in his presumptive final year in Athens?
Georgia’s do-everything tight end has put together career numbers of 119 receptions for 1,824 yards and 20 touchdowns. Assuming health, Bowers will unquestionably etch his final tallies among the leaders of all statistical categories in Georgia’s history.
But could he top them all?
Here’s what he would need as a junior this year: 86 catches for 1,270 yards and 11 touchdowns. That would give Bowers the most receptions, receiving yards and receiving touchdowns in Bulldogs history. It’s not impossible, but those are some lofty numbers. In fact, that stat line would set season high marks for receptions and yards.
But 11 touchdown receptions to overtake Terrence Edwards for most all time? Absolutely doable.
And let’s make a better comparison: Former Bulldog AJ Green owns arguably the best 3-year receiving career in Georgia’s history. He had 166 receptions for 2,619 yards and 23 touchdowns. To do that, Bowers needs to catch 57 for 795 and 3 touchdowns.
Not such a tall order.
How will the production be divided up between Georgia’s deep wide receiver corps?
Speaking of receivers, Georgia has a lot of them.
In addition to Bowers at tight end, the Bulldogs have Ladd McConkey and Dominic Lovett, Rara Thomas and Marcus Rosemy-Jacksaint, Arian Smith and Dillon Bell. All of these players, whether at Georgia or another school, had their moments of impact in 2022.
So, with Bowers as the presumptive top target, how does Beck (or whoever is throwing the football) divide up the rest?
McConkey and Lovett, on paper, should be one of the nation’s best 1-2 punches at wide receiver, but Smith feels like a player ready to break out. After a big end to the season in the College Football Playoff and with a big-armed quarterback throwing him the ball, Smith’s breakaway speed feels like a perfect advantage.
How many players from this team will go in the 2024 NFL Draft?
After the 2021 season, Georgia set the modern record for players taken in one NFL Draft with 15. After sending 10 more to the league in last year’s draft, the Bulldogs still might have enough on this team to threaten that record.
Here’s the list of potential 2024 draftees I came up with on a first pass: McConkey, Lovett, OL Xavier Truss, center Sedrick Van Pran, OL Tate Ratledge, OL Amarius Mims, Bowers, Beck, Milton, Stackhouse, DT Warren Brinson, LB Smael Mondon, Dumas-Johnson, DB Kamari Lassiter, DB Javon Bullard and DB Tykee Smith.
That’s 16 players. Now, a couple may be a stretch. Smith or Milton may be on the fringe. Beck has only thrown a few passes in his career, so who really knows how this plays out.
Still, it’s certainly on the radar. And with talent like this, there can be only one more question to ask …
Can they do the impossible and win a 3rd straight national title?
No one has done it. Not really. Sorry, 1934-36 champions Minnesota. Different era. Different competition. Different business. There was no transfer portal. There was no College Football Playoff. There was no Nick Saban juggernaut in Tuscaloosa, Alabama.
If the Bulldogs pull it off this year, they will be one of one to do it.
Alabama was close in 2013-14. It had won back-to-back titles and was ranked No. 1 going into the Iron Bowl in the final week of the regular season. And then the unthinkable happened when Chris Davis fielded a missed field goal and ran it back for a walk-off touchdown.
It’s always something. Will Georgia experience its version of the Kick Six this year? Or can it do what has been otherwise unattainable throughout modern college football:
It’s good to be back, football fans.