Mark Richt always fielded a competitive team in Athens, but he never quite got the Bulldogs to the promised land.

Taking over between the hedges is former Georgia safety Kirby Smart, who served under Alabama coach Nick Saban as defensive coordinator for the past nine years. This is a program that required some fresh blood.

On offense, senior Greyson Lambert and freshman Jacob Eason are battling for the starting quarterback job. When Nick Chubb and Sony Michel are healthy, they form a terrific tandem. Defensively, there’s a lot of talent at every level. Smart has plenty to work with, but he’s looking for pass rushers.

While Lambert may be the safe choice at the game’s most important position, Eason is a more gifted passer. Chubb (knee) and Michel (arm) need to recover quickly. The Dawgs must run the ball early and often in 2016.

If Jim McElwain gave Florida a shot in the arm last season in Year 1, maybe Smart can do the same for UGA.


SDS 2015 projection: 11-1 (7-1)
Actual record: 9-3* (5-3)

* doesn’t include postseason

Predicting every Georgia game:

Sept. 3 vs. North Carolina (L): Eason might have some first-game jitters, especially at a neutral site in Atlanta. Neither Chubb nor Michel will be at full strength. Lots of red flags.

Sept. 10 vs. Nicholls State (W): Week 2 is almost always Cupcake Week in the SEC. Georgia can lick its wounds after an 0-1 start and get into the win column comfortably.

Sept. 17 at Missouri (W): The Tigers are going to play tough defense again for first-year coach Barry Odom. But will they score points? The Bulldogs are much better at this point.

Sept. 24 at Ole Miss (L): In what will likely be a battle of present vs. future at the quarterback position, Chad Kelly shows Eason how it’s done in the passing game.

Oct. 1 vs. Tennessee (L): The winner of this matchup seizes early control of the East. There is so much to like for the Vols this season, even though they have to travel to Athens.

Oct. 8 at South Carolina (W): Will Muschamp has a major rebuilding job on his hands in Columbia. Steve Spurrier left the cupboard a little bare. The Dawgs should cruise.

Oct. 15 vs. Vanderbilt (W): Derek Mason is one of the more creative defensive minds at the college level, and he’ll call plays again in 2016. UGA prevails, but in frustrating fashion.

Oct. 29 vs. Florida in Jacksonville (W): Richt only went 5-10 at the Cocktail Party. Smart needs to have more consistent success in Jacksonville. He begins the border war 1-0.

Nov. 5 at Kentucky (W): The Wildcats are catching up to the rest of the league when it comes to recruiting. They haven’t yet been able to turn that success into wins, though.

Nov. 12 vs. Auburn (W): Always an interesting cross-division showdown. Smart knows Gus Malzahn’s frenetically paced offense as well as any coach in the conference.

Nov. 19 vs. Louisiana-Lafayette (W): The first of two home games to finish the schedule is of the cupcake variety. UGA shouldn’t have too much trouble with the Ragin’ Cajuns.

Nov. 26 vs. Georgia Tech (W): The Yellow Jackets are a nightmare to prepare for on an annual basis. Smart will learn this in a hurry. He didn’t see a lot of triple-option offense at ‘Bama.

2016 projection: 9-3 (6-2)
SEC race: 2nd in the East

The Skinny: Even Saban lost six games his first season in Tuscaloosa. Since then, he’s averaged more than 12 wins per year. Expecting the same level of success for Smart is unreasonable, but there are enough positives to suggest that the Dawgs can bark a bit in the East. It’s just Tennessee’s time.

John Crist is the senior writer for Saturday Down South, a member of the FWAA and a voter for the Heisman Trophy. Send him an e-mail, like him on Facebook or follow him on Twitter.