Georgia is the favorite in the East this season, but that moniker has been more curse than blessing the last few years.
On paper, the Bulldogs have the premier program in the division. Quarterback Jacob Eason is no longer a first-year starter, running back Nick Chubb — Sony Michel, too — came back to Athens and the defense returns 10 starters off a pretty stout unit.
However, there are still tons of legitimate questions surrounding UGA coming into 2017. Did Eason simply experience typical freshman growing pains this past season, or was he overhyped by those recruiting services? Will the receivers and offensive line be any better, or are they not good enough to lend Eason the level of support he obviously needs to succeed?
Perhaps most important, is coach Kirby Smart ready to finally step out of Nick Saban’s long shadow? We’ll find out soon enough.
2016 Projection: 9-3 (6-2)
Actual Record: 7-5* (4-4)
* doesn’t include bowl game
Mark Richt won double-digit games 10 times in 15 seasons, but he was never able to get the Dawgs over the hump on the national scene.
Smart cut his teeth on Saban’s staff for nine years at Alabama, the last eight as his defensive coordinator. The Saban coaching tree has produced some wild successes (Jimbo Fisher at Florida State) but some spectacular failures (Derek Dooley at Tennessee), as well.
After a mildly disappointing 8-5 debut in 2016 that featured defeats to East doormat Vanderbilt and ACC rival Georgia Tech — both at Sanford Stadium, by the way — Smart is already starting to feel some pressure between the hedges. He replaced Richt with the clear expectation that he could take this team to the next level, so he must deliver.
It’s only Year 2 for the one-time Georgia defensive back, but Smart will have a hard time playing the “rebuilding” card if a roster this talented can’t make it to Atlanta.
For the most part, Eason’s performance a year ago was in line with what you tend to see from a QB straight out of high school.
That being said, Alabama’s Jalen Hurts was the SEC Offensive Player of the Year. South Carolina’s Jake Bentley totally transformed the offense upon being inserted in the lineup. Ole Miss’s Shea Patterson beat Texas A&M on the road in his first career start.
It’s beyond reasonable to point out that the Bulldogs’ ground game with Chubb and Michel wasn’t as productive as many had hoped. Receivers dropped a fair amount of passes. The O-line also failed to protect Eason consistently. On the other hand, he didn’t do much to make up for those shortcomings and elevate the level of play around him.
In the spring game, he was outplayed by early enrollee Jake Fromm. If Eason is already looking over his shoulder, it’s justified.
Strengths & Weaknesses
In terms of his skill set, Eason has more to work with than most field generals. He needs to develop some touch and timing, though.
Not only are Chubb and Michel still in red and black, but both should be healthier than they were in 2016. Even if they’re not the top tandem in the league anymore, there’s no reason why they can’t combine for about 2,000 yards rushing.
Assuming that defensive tackle Trenton Thompson is good as new, he’s a difference maker in the trenches on defense. The linebacking corps looks fantastic with Natrez Patrick and Roquan Smith in the middle and Davin Bellamy and Lorenzo Carter on the outside. While the secondary is full of familiar faces, a true cover corner is yet to emerge.
Kicker Rodrigo Blankenship came out of nowhere to be pretty effective last year. Still, special teams overall were abysmal.
Week 1: vs. Appalachian State (W)
The Mountaineers came close to taking out Tennessee in 2016, so shame on Smart and Co. if they’re not fully prepared for this giant slayer.
Week 2: at Notre Dame (L)
One of the more unique road trips in recent SEC history, the Fighting Irish aren’t as bad as last season’s 4-8 record suggests.
Week 3: vs. Samford (W)
Remember the Nicholls State scare a year ago at home? Hopefully, this battle of Bulldogs doesn’t resemble that near catastrophe.
Week 4: vs. Mississippi State (W)
More Bulldogs in town. Nick Fitzgerald tends to maul lesser competition but hasn’t been very effective against elite defenses.
Week 5: at Tennessee (W)
It took a Hail Mary from Joshua Dobbs to Jauan Jennings for the Vols to upend UGA in 2016. Expect no such miracle on Rocky Top.
Week 6: at Vanderbilt (W)
The Dawgs have revenge on their minds after losing their last matchup with the Commodores. The box will be stacked for Ralph Webb.
Week 7: vs. Missouri (W)
Eason threw a game-winning touchdown pass in the waning seconds this past year in Columbia. No heroics should be necessary in Athens.
Week 8: bye
Week 9: vs. Florida (W)*
Win the Cocktail Party, win the division. That’s the most likely scenario. Georgia feels overdue after losing three straight to the Gators.
Week 10: vs. South Carolina (W)
If this contest were to be played on the road, I might be tempted to go with the Gamecocks. But at home, give me the Bulldogs.
Week 11: at Auburn (L)
On the short list of best crossover rivalries in the conference, this could be one of those seasons when the Tigers are truly for real.
Week 12: vs. Kentucky (W)
The Wildcats live and die by their running game, but the Bulldogs are building an Alabama-like front seven under Smart.
Week 13: at Georgia Tech (W)
Preparing for what the Yellow Jackets do offensively is always a chore. Smart should’ve learned a lesson or two from last year’s loss.
* at EverBank Field in Jacksonville
2017 Projection: 10-2 (7-1)
Final Standings: 1st in SEC East
If everything goes according to plan, then Georgia will be in the brand new Mercedes-Benz Stadium the first Saturday in December.
Yes, Eason should be better in Year 2 than he was in Year 1. Yes, the unexpected return of Chubb and Michel was a nice morale boost. Yes, the defense is littered with experience at all three levels. But the East has been incredibly unpredictable lately.
Like it or not, it’s fair to wonder if Eason will ever live up to his 5-star billing. Wideout is a concern, as is the blocking up front. Defensive back Maurice Smith is the only defection of note off last season’s defense, but he was a key cog in the wheel. While Smart did sign the country’s No. 3 recruiting class in February, relying on freshmen to fill in the blanks can be tricky.
Again, the Bulldogs have the division’s top team on paper. Nevertheless, that hasn’t mattered much in recent years.