It's hard to imagine the Georgia hype train at anything less than full speed by the end of spring
All the ingredients for an unstoppable Georgia hype train are there.
You have the all-important promising finish to 2020, which saw the Dawgs win 4 consecutive games to finish the season. You have the established, returning 5-star skill players with JT Daniels, Zamir White, George Pickens and Darnell Washington. You even have what’s sure to be one of the most anticipated season-openers in the sport’s history with Georgia facing off with former nonconference rival Clemson.
Add it all up and yeah, it’s hard to see how the Georgia hype train slows down by the end of spring.
Picture it. We’re going to see the clips of Daniels slinging it in Todd Monken’s offense, and perhaps instead of just being some absurd catch by Pickens, one of Georgia’s receivers returning from injury like Dominick Blaylock or Marcus Rosemy-Jacksaint will be the one hauling it in (both are right on schedule after season-ending injuries in 2020). Or instead of the passing game, maybe we’re overdue for some picture of White looking like a cartoon character with muscles coming out of his neck.
Everything is set up for Georgia fans to get uncontrollably excited about this team, and with good reason. One can acknowledge that without making a 1980 joke.
This offseason is shaping up to be shades of 2008. That, of course, was when Georgia started No. 1 in the Associated Press Top 25 for the first time in program history. If we’re being honest, the Dawgs were actually much closer to starting off No. 2 than many probably remember.
Ohio State got 1 fewer 1st-place vote in the AP Top 25 than Georgia. Here was the breakdown of 1st-place votes in the 2008 preseason:
- No. 1 Georgia, 22
- No. 2 Ohio State, 21
- No. 3 USC, 12
- No. 4 Oklahoma, 4
- No. 5 Florida, 6
Based on some of the early conversation, I wouldn’t be surprised if a similar breakdown played out in 2021, though this time it would be with Georgia and Clemson battling it out for preseason No. 1 (even Rece Davis is leaning Georgia No. 1 in his preseason ballot).
And let’s think about those other similar ingredients. In 2008, Georgia also had the stud preseason Heisman Trophy candidate quarterback (Matthew Stafford) and running back (Knowshon Moreno), as well as the promising 5-star receiver (A.J. Green). The program was coming off a season in which it suffered 2 losses before the final month, and then finished the year on a winning streak that included a New Year’s 6/BCS bowl win against the top Group of 5 team.
The parallels are there. Both teams also had potential issues that could’ve derailed the hype train.
For example, the 2008 Georgia hype train ignored the fact that just before the Dawgs started their winning streak to end the 2007 season, it was preceded by a stretch from Oct. 7, 2006 to Oct. 6, 2007 that featured 6 consecutive losses to divisional foes. Roughly 3 months after that, Georgia finished the year with a No. 2 ranking in that unprecedented 2007 season in which 2-loss LSU won the national title. On the surface, a team who finishes No. 2 with 16 returning starters — that’s not even including the aforementioned Green — is a pretty standard choice to be preseason No. 1.
Nobody could’ve predicted that the 2008 team would suffer injuries in the trenches to the likes of Jeff Owens, Vince Vance and Trinton Sturdivant, and until the Blackout Game, we really didn’t know just want kind of gear Alabama was capable of shifting to in Year 2 of the Nick Saban era. Perhaps we should’ve known that Tim Tebow, who was fresh off a Heisman Trophy season in 2007, was going to have some more help in 2008. We forget that Florida was the preseason pick to win the East, not Georgia.
This time around, that won’t be the case. Georgia will be an overwhelming favorite to win the division when the SEC preseason media poll comes out in July.
What’s the only thing that could change that? A season-ending injury to Daniels would be devastating, though it’s not like Kirby Smart is void of potential replacements. Five-star quarterback Brock Vandagriff enrolled, while redshirt freshman Carson Beck has his hopes set on making that Year 2 jump. There’s also Stetson Bennett IV, who despite his shortcomings to stretch the field in Monken’s offense, at least has half a season’s worth of starting experience against SEC competition.
In other words, there’s depth. And knowing Kirby Smart, a Daniels injury would just prompt him to hit the transfer portal to magically land another former 5-star quarterback (I realize none are in the portal, but these things tend to change).
There’s not an injury to the receiving or running back rooms that can change the overall outlook of Georgia’s hyped 2021 offense because in both areas, you could argue there are at least 3-4 proven options with a bevy of blue-chippers on deck. That’s what happens when you sign 5 consecutive classes that rank in the top 4 nationally. Compare that to the 5 classes leading into that 2008 Georgia season. Mark Richt only had 1 such top-4 class.
If there’s a reason 2021 can be different than the 2008 path, that’s it.
If there’s a reason 2021 will follow a similar buzzkill of a path, it’s the defense.
What last year’s promising offensive finish overshadowed was that in the last 3 games in which Georgia faced a truly elite offense, Smart didn’t really have answers. Go back to 2019 LSU in the SEC Championship Game, and then last year’s matchups against Alabama and Florida. Those are the only offenses Georgia faced who averaged 40 points per game from 2019-20 (Florida finished at 39.8 points per game), and none ended well:
I know, I know. The reason that’s not being harped on now is that Georgia actually has an offense that can compete point for point. And yeah, it’s not realistic to think that the Dawgs will hold those teams to 14 points. They’re getting to 35, pretty much no matter who they play.
But is it fair to wonder if that’s the thing that’ll be overlooked with the 2021 Georgia hype train?
Those teams struggled without having massive defensive turnover. Even with the monumental return of Jordan Davis to lead what some are calling the best defensive line in college football, this UGA defense ranks No. 126 of 127 teams in percentage of returning production. That’s staggering.
At the same time, that’s not the thing that really surfaces when it comes to a spring hype train, especially not in this era when high-flying offense is king. And when you’re a program like Georgia that hasn’t had a top-40 passing offense since Aaron Murray left Athens, that element is going to keep fueling said hype train.
On defense, it’ll be all about the young guys developing. We’ll see random videos of developing 5-stars Kelee Ringo and Smael Mondon, who dealt with injuries last year (Ringo is entering Year 2 in Athens an Mondon just enrolled). Sure, Smart said that the offense was ahead of the defense. Uh, I would hope it is. If Georgia’s passing game wasn’t holding a clear advantage against that depleted secondary in the spring, yeah, I’d be worried.
That’s not the question now. What is worth questioning is if the secondary will be the thing that holds UGA back against D.J. Uiagalelei, Emory Jones and perhaps Bryce Young in a potential SEC Championship scenario. Even if that gets lost in the shuffle amidst the offseason hype, that surely won’t be lost on Smart.
What seems inevitable is that Georgia is going to have more preseason buzz than any SEC team, and perhaps any team in all of college football. It’ll be a different buzz than Clemson or Alabama, both of which have a ring in the last 3 seasons, and it won’t feel like Ohio State, which is replacing arguably its best quarterback in program history. Oklahoma won’t lack buzz with Spencer Rattler, though that “yeah, but” of having gone winless in the Playoff still looms.
Is it possible that Georgia’s letdown in 2008, which still included a top-15 finish, could slow the hype train? Sure, but that was 13 years ago with an entirely different staff and surrounding circumstances (though Saban remains).
For now, we know that as of Tuesday, Georgia’s spring camp is off and running. So is the hype train.
Don’t expect it to slow down anytime soon.