Can Georgia live up to its lofty expectations?
The college football season is rapidly approaching and as the hunger for the upcoming season gets stronger, we’ve got something here at SQ that will hold your appetite for the time being. Over the next few weeks, we’ll be rolling out previews of the teams in our top-25. We last checked in with #17 Louisville. Today we continue our countdown with #16 Georgia.
Team Name: Georgia Bulldogs
2016 Record: 8-5
Finish in AP Poll: Not Ranked
Coach: Kirby Smart (8-5, second year)
Key Arrivals: OT Isaiah Wilson, S Richard LeCounte III, RB D’Andre Swift, OT Andrew Thomas, QB Jake Fromm, S Deangelo Gibbs, DE Robert Beal, WR Jeremiah Holloman, P Cameron Nizialek (Grad Transfer - Columbia), DB J.R. Reed (Transfer - Tulsa)
Previewing Georgia’s Offense
Going into last season, Georgia’s offense was expected to take a hit, especially with a true freshman under center. However, it probably surprised a lot of fans when the team finished the season 102nd in scoring offense, averaging just 24.5 points per game. Stemming from last season’s disappointment, there’s only one way this offense can go, and that’s up. There’s every reason to believe that this offense will improve going into this season.
First off, this is one of the best backfields in the country. It’s hard to find a better one-two punch than Nick Chubb and Sony Michel. Last season was a bit of a roller coaster for the tandem, but they still managed to produce 1,970 yards on the ground. However, the duo looked much better at the end of the season, combining for 636 yards over the last three games.
The performance of these two backs is vital to the success of quarterback Jacob Eason. In three of the team’s five losses (Tennessee, Vanderbilt, and Florida), Chubb and Michel failed to rush for 100 yards. In these three games, Eason was forced to do a little too much, and often could not overcome the lack of consistency from the run game. Eason completed just 58.4% of his passes, with only four of those passes coming for touchdowns.
While Eason may have struggled in those three games, his overall performance for his freshman campaign was solid by the numbers. The former five-star recruit threw for 2,430 yards and 16 touchdowns, while averaging 6.6 yards per attempt. Not exactly eye-popping numbers, but numbers that would have warranted an SEC Freshman Team selection if it wasn’t for Alabama’s Jalen Hurts. With the experience he gained from this past season, Eason should be better prepared for facing SEC defenses on a regular basis.
However, Eason and the backfield’s performance will be effected by one common denominator; the offensive line. The offensive line lost quite a few key pieces and sees just its guards (Isaiah Wynn and Lamont Gaillard) return in 2017. Replacing the three starters that were lost, and finding the right sort of mix up front is essential to the success of this offense.
The Bulldogs have a host of candidates to fill the vacancies in former four-star recruits Dyshon Sims, Michael Barnett, Pat Allen, Ben Cleveland, D’Marcus Hayes, Andrew Thomas, and Netori Johnson. In addition, five-star recruit Isaiah Wilson should have the chance to see plenty of playing time as well. If the offensive line can find the right chemistry, Eason and co. should have one of the better offenses in the SEC.
Previewing Georgia’s Defense
Unlike the offense, this Georgia defense was one of the best in the nation last season, finishing 16th in the nation in total defense (327.5 yards per game). Plenty of experience returns as only nickle back Maurice Smith needs to be replaced in the starting lineup. But head coach Kirby Smart already has a replacement in mind with Tulsa transfer J.R. Reed. With that hole being seemingly filled, there isn’t a glaring weakness to this Georgia defense.
Starting with the front seven, this defensive front should be one of the deepest units in the country. The line is anchored by DT Trenton Thompson (five sacks, 9.5 tackles for loss) and has even more capable pass rushers on the edge in Davin Bellamy and Lorenzo Carter who combined for 10 sacks and 15 tackles for loss last season. Defensive tackle Jonathan Ledbetter can also hold his own on the front after he racked up four QB hurries and two tackles for loss. The linebackers as well are a strength with the team’s leading tacklers returning to the unit in Roquan Smith (95) and Natrez Patrick (59).
The secondary should also be one of the better units in the SEC. A strong group of veterans will maintain the strong standard for this part of the defense, but a new crop of fresh blood will bring some much needed depth to the backfield. The unit is highlighted by veterans Aaron Davis and Dominick Sanders at safety and Malkom Parrish and Deandre Baker at corner.
And while those four have the starting spots locked up, a five-star recruit along with three other four-star recruits will be banging down the door for some playing time. Five-star safety Richard LeCounte III, along with four-star DB’s Deangelo Gibbs, Tray Bishop, and William Poole III should all push for playing time right out of the gates.
Three Key Games
1. Sept. 9 at Notre Dame - This game might not have the same allure that it might have once had due to the fact that Notre Dame finished 4-8 last season. But it’s that finish that adds intrigue to this matchup. A lot of pressure is on the Fighting Irish to do well, and an early season battle with Georgia is going to be an early test for both teams. A road test this early for the Dawgs should give fans an idea of how this team will do in tough environments.
2. Oct. 28 vs. Florida (played in Jacksonville, FL) - The annual Florida-Georgia tilt is one of the most interesting rivalries that college football has to date. Florida has now won the last three meetings between the two teams after Georgia won the three before that. The division will likely come down to these two teams, meaning this game is a must-win for the division champion. Florida is still facing questions at quarterback, but that hasn’t stopped the Gators from beating the Bulldogs the past three seasons, even with Treon Harris. Nonetheless, this game will likely depend upon which defense will out duel the other.
3. Nov. 11 at Auburn - Another rivalry against another top SEC opponent. Facing Auburn late in the season could have Playoff implications on the line if both of these teams do as well as they are expected to do this season. Auburn is returning a bunch of talent on offense, while adding the top JUCO QB in former Baylor signal caller Jarrett Stidham. With Stidham under center, the Tigers now have a capable quarterback that can be effective in the passing game, which should open up even more holes for Kamryn Pettway and Kerryon Johnson. The Bulldogs have won the last three meetings against the Tigers, but three of the last four contests have been decided by seven points or less.
Georgia is a team that has a ton of upside heading into 2017. The only problem is that a lot of that same upside was present in 2016, and it didn’t pan out. Georgia finished the season 8-5 last season as the Kirby Smart era began, not terrible, but not what Georgia fans are accustomed to either. Heading into this season, the experience gained from last season along with the talent that returned on both sides of the ball should help to improve this team quite a bit.
Having a healthy backfield on offense is important in order to take the pressure off of Eason, and getting Chubb back for his senior season should do just that. Chubb’s return from a knee injury in 2015 might have made things a little more difficult last season, but a full year after recovery should help him to find another gear. Of course, his success, along with Eason’s, largely depends on whether or not the offensive line can build a cohesive unit that can work together and stay healthy.
The defense, however, offers much more safety and excitement based on the amount of returners and newcomers this season. Up front, it’s hard to find another unit that has as much talent as this one does with Thompson leading the way. Georgia’s secondary is going to be fun to watch with all the young talent that it has stashed in the two deep now.
It should come as no surprise that Georgia was picked by the media as this season’s favorite to win the SEC East. On paper, it’s hard to pick against a team that’s loaded with former four and five-star recruits. With that being said, this team has to improve if it’s going to live up to the expectations that’s been bestowed upon it. Winning the SEC East is certainly attainable, but it’s not going to be easy having to travel to Tennessee and Auburn, while having to take on Nick Fitzgerald and Mississippi State at home. Not to mention there’s also the neutral site rivalry against Florida in Jacksonville. Even with matchups like this, Georgia should still be able to finish with nine wins, maybe even 10 with the bowl game.
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