Editor’s note: Saturday Down South’s annual Crystal Ball prediction series continues today with Georgia. Wednesday: Kentucky.

Think about something for a second.

In less than a 3-year stretch, 4 quarterbacks left Georgia early with eligibility remaining. For those who weren’t keeping track, that’s Jacob Eason, Justin Fields, Jake Fromm and most recently, Jamie Newman. At this time next year, there’s a pretty good chance that all of those guys are on an active NFL roster.

With that in mind, think about something else for a second.

The expectation is that Georgia is going to finish with its 4th consecutive top-7 ranking in the Associated Press Top 25, which hasn’t happened in 37 years. If Georgia finished in the top 4, it would also mark the first time that happened in consecutive years since 1983. The Dawgs are starting in the top 4 for the 3rd consecutive year. That hasn’t happened since … ever. Before this streak began in 2018, Georgia had 2 total preseason top-4 rankings in program history (2004 and 2008).

I get it. That’s all hot air to some who just want to say nothing matters until the 1980 jokes stop. Take it from a lifelong Chicago Cubs, I know what that means.

But I bring up the quarterback stuff and the rankings because it feels like every departing signal-caller has offered a new chance for the anti-Georgia crowd to pile on and say that Kirby Smart can’t steer the Ferrari that his program has become.

This is different than what Mark Richt built. Anyone can see that. The ability to stay nationally relevant despite losing big chunks of talent, including at the most important position, is something we take for granted. Nobody has ever done it like this at Georgia from a depth standpoint. That’s not to say Smart is Vince Dooley yet, but even Dooley never built the program to the level where expectations were so sky high regardless of whatever talent was lost.

In a year in which depth seems to be of the utmost importance, will that be the thing that helps Georgia end the 1980 jokes? The fact that it’s even a question is a testament to Smart.

The quarterback battle winner is …

Anyone’s guess. If we knew that JT Daniels was at 100%, I’d say there’d be an overwhelming feeling that he’s the guy. Maybe there still is, but the D’Wan Mathis hype seems legitimate. The 6-6, 215-pound signal-caller didn’t have the spring that he probably would have wanted coming off last year’s emergency brain surgery. The question is if the big-armed redshirt freshman is a better system fit than Daniels.

Of course, Daniels has a year of Power 5 experience. Even though it was up and down, Daniels still proved that he could read defenses and make throws along the sideline downfield. He established a connection with Michael Pittman Jr. that could be reminiscent to the one that Daniels and George Pickens develop. If Daniels is healthy, that’s in the cards.

But Daniels still has efficiency issues. He only averaged 7.4 yards per attempt in 2018, and he was sacked 25 times. He’s not the running threat that Newman would have been. Mathis wouldn’t be that, either, but this is all about finding the right quarterback to make Monken’s offense go. There’s a belief that Mathis could be that guy.

Who knows how this could play out even once the season starts. The good news for Georgia is that it still has a couple of, what many believe to be, capable options at the game’s most important position following Newman’s departure.

Can Zamir White stay healthy and achieve star status?

Boy, I hope so. I really do. It doesn’t seem like that long ago that White, AKA “Zeus,” was making runs like this look way too easy:

Georgia fans have been waiting to see that guy for 3 years. Granted, he had his moments last year. He had better than a 50% success rate, and that number was still at a solid 45% in SEC play.  It was still in flashes, though. Now, with D’Andre Swift and the underrated Brian Herrien gone, it’s White’s turn to become the next great Georgia back.

What does that look like, especially in this offense? Well, the Nick Chubb comparisons were legitimate a few years ago, and they’re even more legitimate in 2020 considering where Monken came from. Can White have a role in this offense that rivals Chubb’s breakout year in Cleveland? Health seems like the biggest question there.

And obviously, James Cook is also going to have a significant role in this offense. To expect White to carry the ball 25 times in this offense is unrealistic, especially considering the fact that he’s had 2 major surgeries in the past couple of years.

But White, if he can keep those knees healthy, has a big year ahead in that offense.

That defense, man

I just realized that only 5 players have been drafted off Smart’s defense since he’s been in Athens. That’s stunningly low. Why is that number so low? Well, many of those guys who could have been drafted — Malik Herring, Richard LeCounte and Monty Rice — stayed another year. It wouldn’t surprise anyone if Georgia led the country in defensive players drafted each of the next 2 years.

In other words, yes, there’s a whole bunch of proven defensive talent in Athens. You know, in case you haven’t heard.

The nation’s No. 1 scoring defense lost the valuable J.R. Reed, Tae Crowder and Tyler Clark. But to say that the Dawgs are loaded would be an understatement. LeCounte is an obvious preseason All-American, while Herring and Rice are certainly in that discussion. Some think that Jordan Davis is the best player on that defense. They’ve got a lockdown corner in Eric Stokes, and Tyrique Stevenson came on strong as a true freshman in 2019.

That’s really the thing that Smart has in spades. It’s 2019 blue-chip recruits who looked the part in limited work last year. Nakobe Dean is a popular breakout candidate, as is former No. 1 overall recruit Nolan Smith and former 5-star defensive tackle Travon Walker. All are going to get expanded roles, and all still have sky-high potential.

This should be the nation’s best defense. And while I think the style of offense and the all-SEC schedule might not necessarily be conducive to putting up historically good numbers, battling against Georgia’s disciplined defense is going to be an uphill climb for 60 minutes.

If there’s one thing that I’m sure of in 2020, that’s it.

Game-by-game predictions

Week 1: at Arkansas (W)

The Sam Pittman Bowl might not be all Dawgs from start to finish. I say that just because I think Barry Odom actually has a clue what he’s doing on the defensive side of the ball, and there could be some kinks to work out with UGA’s new offense. But will this be a frustrating debut for Feleipe Franks running a new system coming off a major injury? I believe so.

Week 2: vs. Auburn (W)

If I’m an Auburn fan, I’m terrified of that offensive line, with 4 new starters, trying to slow down Georgia’s front 7. That seems like an awful matchup any way you look at it. Even if Georgia’s offense isn’t a well-oiled machine yet, I don’t like the odds of Auburn moving the ball downfield. And on the flip side, how will the Tigers handle Georgia’s ground game coming off what should be a physical opening weekend matchup against Kentucky? I still need to see how Kevin Steele’s defense looks like in a post-Marlon Davidson/Derrick Brown world to pencil in any chance of an upset. Give me Georgia by double digits.

Week 3: vs. Tennessee (W)

This is a tricky matchup because if you’re Georgia, you know what’s ahead (Alabama). You also know that the team you’re facing is one that you outscored 122-26 the past 3 years. Coming off what I believe will be a somewhat dominant showing against a good Auburn team, how ready to go is Georgia to battle a Tennessee team that was significantly improved in the latter half of 2019? It wouldn’t surprise me if this one went into halftime at a 1-score game. But unlike the first 2 weeks, Georgia’s offense does the heavy lifting in the second half to put the game away. A long Demetris Robertson touchdown serves as the exclamation point on what’s easily Monken’s best offensive half to date. Georgia gets to Alabama unbeaten.

Week 4: at Alabama (W)

Want another bold prediction for 2020? I don’t think anyone in the SEC goes undefeated in the regular season. That includes Alabama (and Georgia, but I’ll get there in a minute). After 3 relatively comfortable wins, Smart catches Alabama at the perfect time. Georgia’s new-look offense with Monken does the exact thing that Alabama’s defense hasn’t seen yet — it spreads things out with equal talent across the board. In a game that turns into a shootout somewhat reminiscent of the 2019 LSU game, Monken’s coming-out-party leads Georgia to a monumental win at Alabama. Smart ends Saban’s perfect record against his disciples as well as the 10-year winning streak against the East. Suddenly, the Dawgs’ national championship buzz is louder than ever.

Week 5: at Kentucky (W)

Don’t. Sleep. On. Kentucky.

I think I might get that tattooed on my hand so that whenever I brush my teeth in the morning, I can remind myself of that. This will be more competitive than any game against the Cats since Georgia became what it is today. Coming off 3 consecutive weeks of physical, grind-it-out battles, Georgia finds itself in a dog fight before the bye week and subsequent Florida showdown. Christopher Rodriguez busts loose for a rare rushing score against the Georgia defense and Lexington is rocking early. But Pickens, who had been relatively quiet to start, has a Sugar Bowl-like performance. Kentucky’s adjustments come too late and Georgia escapes Kentucky with a 1-possession win.

Week 6: Bye

Week 7: vs. Florida in Jacksonville (L)

Yeah, I think it finally happens. In addition to not being able to run the ball at all last year — I’m betting on Florida to be much improved up front to prevent another ground game dud in Jacksonville — the Gators were bit by the same thing that cost them the 2018 game. That is, an inability to get off the field on 3rd down. Georgia was a combined 20-for-32 in those spots in 2018 and 2019. Five of Georgia’s 6 touchdowns in those games came on 3rd down, too. Florida fans know this. Todd Grantham knows this. I have to think, given Florida’s sense of urgency and with so many new pieces on that Georgia offensive line and at quarterback with a new system, that narrative turns around. In a low-scoring, hard-fought thriller, the oft-injured Malik Davis winds up being the hero with a late rushing score to lift Florida to a 21-17 victory to take back the East lead and clear the Gators’ path to Atlanta.

Week 8: at Mizzou (W)

As demoralizing as a Florida loss would be, I fully expect Georgia to take its anger out on the remaining part of the schedule. A Mizzou offense that starts trending in the right direction gets knocked back to earth. Consider this the “Nakobe Dean game.” He gets a couple of sacks and even forces a rushed throw to lead to Stokes’ first career interception. A 35-7 showing shows that Georgia’s post-Florida mood is definitely more angry than deflated.

Week 9: vs. Mississippi State (W)

This is going to be a challenging prep situation for Smart. I do expect Mike Leach’s Air Raid to improve as the season progresses, and I think Georgia’s defense will have to make some in-game adjustments to stop it. But this still comes back to a couple of things. One, I don’t see MSU’s offensive line, which has several new pieces, stopping Georgia the way it needs to. And on the flip side, I wouldn’t be surprised if this turned into White’s best collegiate game to date. That MSU defense lost more players to the NFL than Georgia the past 2 years, which is a stunning thought. A slow start turns into a comfortable UGA win.

Week 10: at South Carolina (W)

Something tells me that Smart wants this one. Bad. Like, we’re going to see another viral video of him from practice saying “I WANNA EAT!” But perhaps a few choice words are mixed in there. I don’t think Smart will have to remind his team what happened last year. A rare East revenge game for Georgia should follow a different tune. I think the ground game, with White and Cook, has much more success operating out of Monken’s system than what we saw from Georgia’s backs last year against Will Muschamp’s defense. Against a solid South Carolina defense, the Dawgs avenge the 2019 loss in a big way.

Week 11: vs. Vanderbilt (W)

Am I bracing for a bunch of SEC upsets in this 10-game conference schedule with quarantines? Yes. Am I bracing for Vandy to roll into Georgia and win a game in the last weekend of the season with the Dawgs still holding onto East hopes? I’ll say it in Spanish. “No.”

2020 projection: 9-1, 2nd in SEC East


Yes, I created the ultimate doomsday scenario. If you haven’t been following along with the Crystal Ball series, well, you should. But in case you haven’t, here’s what I have shaking out:

  • Florida, 9-1, SEC East champs
  • Alabama, 9-1, SEC West champs
  • Georgia, 9-1, 2nd in East but beat Alabama

Give me all the chaos, please.

That’s what that would create, almost regardless of who won the SEC Championship between Alabama and Florida. UGA would have arguably the best win of any Playoff contender and at 9-1 with only 3 Power 5 conferences in action, one has to think that the Dawgs would have a clear case to make the Playoff.

And the argument, of course, would be that Florida should win any sort of tiebreaker against Georgia regardless of what happens in the SEC Championship because of the head-to-head advantage. Remember, there’s a better chance than ever that we see 2 SEC teams in the Playoff. Besides the SEC winner essentially getting an automatic bid, the most favorable scenario for Georgia would be Alabama losing to Florida and falling to 9-2 having already lost to Georgia.

Real quick. The Twitter war between Florida and Georgia fans would reach a new peak. That’s saying something.

I do believe that the Dawgs will have a legitimate Playoff case at the end of the regular season, regardless of what happens with the quarterback situation. I think this defense is so deep and disciplined that Georgia will be able to stomach some offensive struggles, though obviously not to the degree we saw in 2019.

All I know is that if the mess that’s been 2020 yields a 3-team SEC Playoff debate after conference championship weekend, I’ll apologize for all the complaining I did about not having sports.