SEC hype machine shifts from Tennessee last season to Georgia this season

Oct 29, 2016; Jacksonville, FL, USA; Georgia Bulldogs head coach Kirby Smart looks on against the Florida Gators during the first half at EverBank Field. Mandatory Credit: Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

A year ago at this time, the new darling of the SEC was Tennessee. Everything was lining up for the Volunteers to have a breakout season.

Instead, coach Butch Jones and Co. disappointed to the tune of a 9-4 mark that ended with a rather forgettable W over equally overrated Nebraska in the Franklin American Mortgage Music City Bowl. Not much of a breakout.

If UT couldn’t win the watered-down East in 2016, then a convincing case can be made that it never will again — at least not with Jones at the controls. Quarterback Joshua Dobbs is gone. So is the tailback tandem of Jalen Hurd and Alvin Kamara. Difference makers at every level defensively are on their way to the NFL, too.

So if the Vols can’t unseat back-to-back division champion Florida, then it’s time to find another program that possibly can.

Look no further than Georgia. Despite the fact that the Bulldogs were a similarly ho-hum 8-5 a season ago, wrapping up with a victory over a mediocre TCU team in the AutoZone Liberty Bowl, second-year coach Kirby Smart is ready to make The Leap.

The conference’s hype machine can understandably run off the rails at times. Two seasons ago, then-Auburn quarterback Jeremy Johnson was anointed as a Heisman Trophy candidate before making a single start — he got benched after three games. This past year, the Vols dominated the offseason water-cooler discussion.

With all that hype having withered up and died in Knoxville, it’s looking for a new home in 2017. Athens is the most logical destination.

Tennessee boasted the most experienced QB in the league with Dobbs last season. But this year, UGA features perhaps the most talented field general. Jacob Eason (below) rode the highs and lows typical of a true freshman in 2016.

Sep 17, 2016; Columbia, MO, USA; Georgia Bulldogs quarterback Jacob Eason (10) throws the ball against the Missouri Tigers in the first half at Faurot Field. Mandatory Credit: John Rieger-USA TODAY Sports

Credit: John Rieger-USA TODAY Sports

Taking over for incumbent Greyson Lambert in Week 2, Eason was a 55.1-percent passer and assembled a touchdown-to-interception ratio of 16-to-8. Statistically, he was superior to Matthew Stafford (52.7, 7-to-13) right out of high school.

There were plenty of highlights, particularly his 47-yard scoring strike to Riley Ridley with 10 seconds left in the Tennessee game to take a 31-28 lead — Dobbs’s subsequent Hail Mary to Jauan Jennings at the buzzer made Eason’s cross-field missile no less incredible. There are NFL signal callers who couldn’t have made that throw.

But there were a fair share of lowlights, as well. Eason’s 5-of-17 performance a week later in an escape of South Carolina was puzzling.

Still, it’s reasonable to expect the former 5-star phenom to improve drastically in Year 2. The aforementioned Stafford almost tripled his touchdown passes as a sophomore and fired three fewer interceptions on 92 more attempts.

Eason is going to need much more help from his supporting cast, though. His own one-two punch in the backfield, Nick Chubb and Sony Michel, battled ineffectiveness here and there. His receiving corps dropped way too many passes. His offensive line ebbed more often than it flowed and may have been the root cause of everyone’s struggles.

A pleasant surprise, Chubb and Michel return for their senior campaigns. Additionally, both should be healthier than they were as juniors.

Conversely, Eason’s weapons through the air remain somewhat of a question mark. His most reliable target, Isaiah McKenzie, bolted early for the draft. Terry Godwin is the top returning wideout, but he didn’t reel in a single TD last season.

Eason would be wise to lock on to his rising-sophomore tight end, Isaac Nauta, early and often. He flashed at times as a frosh and presents legitimate matchup problems for safeties and linebackers alike. Smart’s much-ballyhooed recruiting class — No. 3 nationally — also features a trio of 4-star pass catchers.

That being said, it’s a moot point if the Dawgs don’t get better play up front. Isaiah Wilson, a 5-star tackle, was a must-sign.

On the other side of the ball, there was a lot to like between the hedges. Georgia was a Top 5 unit in the league in rushing defense, passing defense, total defense and scoring defense. Only Alabama, Florida and LSU can say that.

Dec 30, 2016; Memphis, TN, USA; Georgia Bulldogs defensive tackle Trenton Thompson (78) sacks TCU Horned Frogs quarterback Kenny Hill (7) during the second half at Liberty Bowl. Georgia Bulldogs defeated the TCU Horned Frogs 31-23. Mandatory Credit: Justin Ford-USA TODAY Sports

Credit: Justin Ford-USA TODAY Sports

Just like it’s reasonable to anticipate growth from Eason under center as a sophomore, the same can be said of Smart’s D after another year in the system. For nine seasons, he coordinated the premier defense in the land — yes, Nick Saban is ultimately in charge, but still — in Tuscaloosa. That’s his bread and butter.

The Bulldogs had 27 defenders record 5 or more tackles last season. Remarkably, only four of them were seniors.

Trenton Thompson (above) is borderline unblockable at the tackle position. The pass-rushing combination of Davin Bellamy and Lorenzo Carter is back. Like Bellamy and Carter, safety Dominick Sanders said no to the pros. They want another run as collegians.

UGA’s border-state rival, Florida, has captured the East and secured a trip to Atlanta for the SEC Championship Game in each of the last two seasons. Nevertheless, the Gators are unlikely to be the odds-on favorites to do it again — they weren’t last year, either. It was supposed to be Tennessee’s time in the division.

The prognosticators look like fools now for putting so many eggs in Rocky Top’s basket, although no lesson appears to have been learned.

By the time we get to Media Days come July, the Dawgs are a safe bet to be the talk of the town in Hoover. Eason’s upside. Chubb and Michel’s production. Smart settling in as head coach. Momentum on the recruiting trail.

Florida’s quarterback issues are yet to be resolved, plus so many of those defensive stalwarts left behind by Will Muschamp are now gone. Tennessee had a chance — even ending an 11-year losing streak to the Gators — but couldn’t take the next step. Kentucky, Missouri, South Carolina and Vanderbilt aren’t viewed as serious contenders.

The league’s hype machine is sure to be painted red and black, even if UT orange and white didn’t turn out to be such a good look.

* All recruiting figures courtesy of the composite rankings at 247Sports.

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.

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  • Can I start the here we go again, Comments?

    It should be a good year for UGA… They deserve the Hype…

  • Somehow, UGA has to get past the mental block of not beating Florida. Its purely mental now, the talent is there and should count for something.

  • If I’m a Gator, I would yawn, and just assume the East is mine. Totally get that.. They have dominated my Dawgs since Darth Visor went back to Gainesville in the mid 80’s. And if your a VOL, you are telling yourself that you have beaten the Dawgs two years in a row and the game is at home this year.

    At the end of the day, it really depends on how quickly the O-Line comes around. I don’t care how talented you are, you can’t hit passes laying on your back and your running backs are not going to have good days if they are met in the backfield 1/2 the time. That’s the bottom-line… It’s a different league, but would just crack up when everyone was talking about the ‘much improved’ Matt Ryan… We’ll that’s what happens when you go out and get an All-Pro Center that jells your O-Line… Nobody talks about it; but the O-Line and the Kicking Game have to be in place, if your going to win Championships and Georgia hasn’t had either since 2012.

    I do believe that Georgia will win the East; but will not get past Alabama to advance in 2017. (You never know – a lucky bounce here and there and it could be a special year). But with that said, 2018 is the realistic year where UGA has a chance to turn the corner and to begin to potentially dominate the East and become a conference champion and potentially live there a while. (And by the way, the East is getting better – Kentucky and South Carolina especially come to mind; there is still plenty of talent in Rocky Top and UF is UF)..

    • You seem to understand that GA would have a hard time beating Alabama at the SEC Championship game in 2017. But that 2018 is going to be their year? With all the stars Alabama recruited in 2016 being experienced studs in 2018 combined with the Hitachi EH5000 full of studs they picked up this year, Alabama is becoming too powerful. I’m not saying you’re wrong about GA being better in 2018. I’m saying you may be underestimating Alabama in 2018. By that time, Najee Harris will Hulk. Smash.

    • Dawg10 is right..If you look at the games throughout the season there was simply NO push from the OL, even against so called “inferior” opponents. Not even great RBs like Chubb and Michele can do it all by themselves. If Hayes and Wilson can be huge contributors and UGA can control the line of scrimmage, UGA can win the east (all due respect to UF). BTW, what is the deal with Ben Cleveland? Does anyone know?

  • UGA on paper is the best team in the East next season but honestly would anyone really be surprised if UGA, UT, UF, UK, or USC won the East next season? Of course the traditional 3 are the favorites but honestly I could see a case being made for all of these teams and really you could say Vandy has a shot. The East is wide open this year but like I said, UGA on paper is the best team in 2017.

  • Let me just throw something out there, this is Florida’s home SEC schedule this year:
    -Vanderbilt (Honestly the one win last season that gave us the most trouble)
    -Texas A&M
    Let’s also consider that Florida was 5-0 at the swamp last season.

    Lastly, let’s look at the fact that,for the last two years, every member of the media including yourself, John, discounted the Gators because we didn’t have “a talented enough team” (as if the arbitrary numbers assigned to HS kids meant anything real at the end of the day)

    It doesn’t matter that Tabor and Wilson left, we have Gardner and a literal smorgasbord of elite CBs

    It doesn’t matter that we don’t know who’s going to start on QB. Trask and Franks have both had an entire year to absorb MAC’s offensive strategy (Something neither Del Rio nor Appleby had), and anyway we didn’t need QB to win the East for the last two years.

    At some point it’s time to face reality: Florida is going to chomp the East for as long as MAC stays coach of this great university

    • The only one of those home games I would be comfortable with if I was you is Vandy….maybe Tennessee

    • Laziest argument ever. “We won it last year, so we’ll win it again this year.” That’s what the Democrats thought in November.

      • I know I’m a dirtbag, so pointing that out wont’ really matter. But you, you shouldn’t get into the mix with these idiots in the comments sections. Unless you want to remain a journalist for SDS your entire career, you ought to keep it professional and not tarnish your name and reputation by getting into pissing matches with these idiots. Be better than this.

        But that’s none of my business.

        • Bunker, I disagree. I think it’s awesome to see SDS writers engaging with their readers, and I wish more of them would respond to comments. As much as I disagree with things Jon says, I have a huge amount of respect for him for saying what he thinks, even when it’s unpopular, and for engaging with his audience (us).

          If site comments were improved (ability to edit comments, post links and/or embed images, get notifications about replies, etc) and more of the staff engaged in the comments, SDS readership and engagement would go up.

        • The writers responding and the comment section are the main reasons I still use this site. I may not agree with the writers opinions all of the time but it sure does make for interesting reading.

      • That wasn’t my argument.
        My argument is that the arguments you used for Georgia and against us are the same arguments everyone used for Tennessee and against us last year. That is to say absolute malarkey.

        Florida is not in a great need defensively. Our defense will be even better than it was last year now that injuries are over and experience from the multitudes of freshmen we started because of said injuries has been dispersed

        The fact that we don’t know who is going to start as quarterback is neither condemning nor even relevant, as our team gas made due in the past.

        The only thing Georgia has going for it is it got more recruits (many of whom aren’t even going to start this year) that a few sites think will be good, but this has consistently been the least reliable metric by which to predict a football team’s success in the coming season.

        Speaking of recruiting though I seem to remember a certain prediction by a certain someone “Kentucky and Mississippi State are doing a little better than expected. Florida and Ole Miss? A bit worse. None of them will rise or fall too drastically come Wednesday.”
        I’m not sure if you consider a 10 position leap drastic or not, but as for me I’ll take your predictions of the future with the whole salt lick.

  • Idk. If I was UF I’d be happy I wasn’t picked to win the East. It always seems like a death sentence.

  • This hype machine crap is ridiculous. Georgia is in no position to worry about winning the east. We’ll be lucky if we can get some consistent o-line play (for the first time in years) and if a proven receiver FINALLY emerges. True freshman on the o line is not all that enticing and our receiver recruiting has been average at best the last two years. I get that we had a great recruiting class this year, but those kids are true freshman, can we really count on that influx of true freshman to lead us to an East title. Doubtful.

    • Agreed. ..the hype is only being thrown by the media. True UGA fans who are realistic understand that just because Kirby came to town doesn’t guarantee an immediate NC or shot at it. There was to much rebuilding to be done, especially O-line and receivers, and it’s going to be at least year 3 before we start seriously knocking on the door. As always, Smart has shown to be tenacious in recruiting just as he was at Bama and should settle in much better as HC his 2nd year. I know one thing, this Dawgs is excited about the future, especially 2018 and beyond.

      • The hype is only being thrown by the media? Really? You end your paragraph by hyping Georgia 2018 before 2017 has even been played. Plenty of hype (and rightly so) being pushed by the Georgia fan base and others, as this article is proof of.

  • The only hype train is the one that SDS is trying to create. You guys did it to Tennessee last season and Auburn the season before that. I didn’t buy in then and I’m not now.

    • You give us entirely too much credit. Tennessee was the overwhelming favorite to win the East this past summer at SEC Media Days — really, it wasn’t even close. While suggesting that SDS somehow created that movement is sideways complimentary, it’s also totally ludicrous.

  • Wow, guess they don’t teach reading comprehension at Mizzou. You’re right, most UGA fans are pushing the hype to 2018 and beyond because we realize the rebuilding is in process. So again, as stated above, the media is the only one throwing UGA on the hype train for 2017. Just as they did UT in 16 and AU in 15

    • OK, I’m wrong along, you’re right; Georgia is gonna suck this year (although I still believe this is Georgia’s year). You might wanna look below to [email protected] and either belittle him too or take the foot out of your mouth.

  • SOS went back to Gainesville in 1990. UGA owned a 15-5 record over UF in the 70/80’s. SOS change the mentality in Gainesville. The UF/UGA game IS in Florida after all. I do believe at this point it is a mental block on the part of UGA. UF kids approach the game as their birth right to win in Jax. Certainly when UGA won a couple a few years ago that trend seem to be changing but not long enough. All these kids know is UF has dominated the series the last 25 years. Us “Old Timers” who can remember the HW days and winning in Jax 44-0 aren’t the norm any more. As Tenn proved last year, beating Florida doesn’t necessarily mean you win the Division. It used to be the UGA/USCe loser was on the outside looking in. That went away as well. Bottom line until UGA wins the games it’s supposed to, wins a few they’re not supposed too, UGA football will remain where it is. Some years Great, some years good. Kirby needs to make playing UGA something other teams don’t want to do.

  • Hype or not, we have the players to compete for championships this season and beyond but does this coaching staff have the ability to win championships? That should be everybody’s concern.