Skeptic's guide to Georgia's 2022 football season
Coming off of the national championship, Georgia is still pegged to win at least 11 games by ESPN’s Football Power Index. That’s the 3rd-best FPI projection in the country, hardly a drop-off from the perennial College Football Playoff contender.
Between LSU, Clemson and even Ohio State, there’s been a consistent drop-off the following year among teams in the national championship game in recent years. This is a new challenge for Kirby Smart, and he’s already gotten a jump on the messaging.
If the Dawgs do, indeed, take a step back in 2022, it will be because of these 6 reasons.
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Impossible to duplicate the historic defense
How special was Georgia’s defense in 2021? The No. 1 pick in the NFL Draft was down the line in terms of production.
That’s what happened with the Georgia defense, which came into the College Football Playoff having 5 players with at least 6 tackles for loss, and 5 players with at least 4 sacks. And only 2 of those players were in each category. Travon Walker, the eventual No. 1 overall pick, was only in the top 5 on the team in sacks (4). Sure, he moved around to different positions, but the production suffered.
This defense just had 5 players drafted in the 1st round and 8 players total. No wonder, then, that the 2022 group ranks No. 122 out of 130 FBS teams in percentage of returning defensive production. Georgia, like any other team, can’t replicate that unit like so many have tried to install high-flying offenses, because 5-star 1st-rounders aren’t exactly a dime a dozen.
This is not to say that Smart and company can’t re-stock the depth chart. After all, Smart was the first to offer a scholarship to Walker. But assembling all of that talent on 1 unit like the 2021 Georgia defense will be impossible.
As if the Georgia fan base needs any more fuel around the quarterback situation, Stetson Bennett will struggle to duplicate the near-flawless leadership that marked the 2021 season.
While the tight end position is plenty deep, and in its own historic class, the wide receivers will have a difficult time getting separation and developing a bona fide group of reliable wideouts. Without that elite defense, getting into an offensive shootout with the likes of Tennessee and Kentucky will be difficult to keep pace. The first warning sign will come against Oregon, which by all indications are should be an easy win for Georgia, but don’t be surprised if there are white-knuckle moments and some fans clamoring for Carson Beck or Brock Vandagriff in the middle of the game. After all, the Alabama loss only stoked those concerning flames coming out of Atlanta, and undefeated teams are about as rare as it gets in college football.
The vaunted RBU is in a 2-year slump of not having a 1,000-yard rusher, and there are some questions about whether Kenny McIntosh and Kendall Milton can carry the load.
After Georgia led the SEC in rushing in 2018, the Bulldogs have slipped to 6th and 5th the past 2 seasons. Georgia has had serviceable backs in recent years but has lacked a star. In Smart’s 6 years as head coach, Georgia hasn’t had a consensus 1st-team All-SEC running back. UGA did not have a running back listed among the 4 who earned All-SEC honors in 2021 or the 5 in 2020. The talented yet somewhat inexperienced offensive line, especially at the guard positions, will be exposed when it’s needed most.
Smart came out early after the national championship and said Georgia wouldn’t be defending the national title. The 2021 won it. The 2022 team is starting anew. That will be combined with a larger point of revenge and motivation, both with the likes of Bennett no longer being an underdog or counted out, and the full-on reset to not let players get complacent while admiring their championship ring.
But also with the fan base and media no longer having the 4-decade drought as a narrative, and the Alabama revenge not really on the table anymore. The Alabama injury excuses have tried to grab traction but probably won’t last long when it matters. The bottom line is, how will the majority of Georgia fans react if the Bulldogs lose in the SEC Championship but come back and win the Sugar Bowl, for example? Smart has largely created a clean slate from the criticism of his game management in big games.
Replacing its top 3 linebackers from last season in Nakobe Dean, Channing Tindall and Quay Walker presents plenty of questions about leadership.
This will test the so-called next wave of recruiting, and how the likes of Jamon Dumas-Johnson and former 5-stars Smael Mondon Jr. and Xavian Sorey Jr. fare stepping into that void. How will they react when the defense gives up a big play or isn’t as smothering as it was last year?
Changing the style of play
Clearly, Georgia will need to score more, as the defense will let up some, naturally. This will put the onus on Todd Monken to find a creative way to maximize the tight end-heavy offense, and continue to put Bennett in successful positions. There’s already been comments that have downplayed Dan Lanning’s exit, but no matter how smooth the transition is to the new co-defensive coordinators, losing a top assistant like that will leave a mark.