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SEC Season Preview: Georgia

By Matt Smith
SouthernPigskin.com
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Previewing the 2017 Georgia Bulldogs.

Head Coach: Kirby Smart – second year at Georgia and overall (8-5 overall, 4-4 SEC)

Offensive Coordinator: Jim Chaney (second season)

Defensive Coordinator: Mel Tucker (second season)

2016 Record: 8-5 (4-4 SEC); defeated TCU in Liberty Bowl

Returning Starters: 17 (7 offense, 10 defense)

2017 Schedule

Sept. 2 – APPALACHIAN STATE (6:15 p.m. ET, ESPN)
Sept. 9 – at Notre Dame (7:30 p.m. ET, NBC)
Sept. 16 – SAMFORD (7:30 p.m. ET, SEC Network Alt.)
Sept. 23 – MISSISSIPPI STATE
Sept. 30 – at Tennessee

Oct. 7 – at Vanderbilt
Oct. 14 – MISSOURI
Oct. 28 – vs. Florida (Jacksonville) (3:30 p.m. ET, CBS)

Nov. 4 – SOUTH CAROLINA
Nov. 11 – at Auburn
Nov. 18 – KENTUCKY
Nov. 25 – at Georgia Tech

What We Know

-The defense is the most experienced in the SEC. 10 starters, return, more than half of whom are seniors. It’s Georgia, so you know there’s plenty of talent, even if virtually none of the expected contributors are Kirby Smart recruits. The linebacking corps is fantastic, and the defensive line isn’t far behind. Just how experienced is the secondary? Aaron Davis, Malkom Parrish and Dominick Sanders combined for 91 tackles – in 2014! The unit was up and down last year, but finished strong, highlighted by holding Auburn without a first down in the second half. The kinks should be worked out in Smart’s second year, and anything more than 20 points per game allowed would be a disappointment.

-The running back stable actually rivals Alabama’s, which is a rarity in the SEC of late. Nick Chubb and Sony Michel both shunned the NFL to play their senior seasons, and third-teamer Brian Herrien would be the No. 2 back pretty much everywhere besides Alabama and Auburn. The yards per carry average dipped last season from 5.1 to 4.7, but Chubb should be stronger now that he’s nearly two years removed from an ugly knee injury suffered in October 2015 Chubb isn’t a passing game threat, but Michel is. This group is deep, complementary, and very scary.

-If Georgia is to get to be a national title contender for the first time since 2012, it’s going to have to be road warriors. Despite 2017 being a three-road game year in league play with the Florida game counting as a Gators home date, there are two tough non-conference trips to Notre Dame and Georgia Tech, as well as rivalry battles at Auburn and Tennessee. The home schedule is quite blah, with Mississippi State and South Carolina (yuck) the most interesting visitors.

What We Don’t Know

-How much progress can we expect from Jacob Eason as a sophomore? The former five-star recruit made some eye-popping throws as a true freshman, but there were still plenty of mistakes. Eason was overwhelmed against better defenses (Auburn and Florida), but only threw eight interceptions in 13 games. Don’t expect an All-American season, but finishing as one of the SEC’s three best quarterbacks is realistic. Upping his completion percentage from the shaky 55 percent mark of a year ago into the low sixties would go a long way towards a division title.

-Does the offensive line finally start moving people? It’s been one of the most disappointing position groups in the conference for a few years running now, and now Georgia is likely to have a new starter at all five positions comes September. Two of those are five are just position switches, with Isaiah Wynn expected to move from guard to tackle, and Lamont Gaillard likely sliding his rear end from Eason’s right to directly in front of him. Sam Pittman is a well-respected offensive line coach, but this unit could be a year away from turning the corner.

-Throw Georgia wide receivers into the disappointing position groups boat as well. Georgia is well off at tight end with the duo of sophomore Isaac Nauta and senior Jeb Blazevich, but the outside spots still have question marks. Terry Godwin needs to break out as a junior after not scoring a touchdown last year, while sophomore Mecole Hardman could fill the do-everything role vacated by Isaiah McKenzie. Riley Ridley was a big-play guy as a freshman, but needs to diversify his repertoire as a sophomore. Unlike the offensive line, I think this unit does make significant progress in 2017. 

X-Factor

Godwin – Even with a shaky line, the running backs are so good that the rushing attack will be at least serviceable even if the blocking is not. The passing game, however, has a lower floor if Godwin and the receivers don’t progress. Georgia shouldn’t find itself in many shootouts, but there is going to be a bad day or two from this defense. It’s not Alabama. Whether the offense can carry the team for a half or a whole game will determine whether the Atlanta drought ends this year or continues into 2017.

Ranking The Units

1.   Running Backs
2.   Linebackers
3.   Defensive Backs
4.   Defensive Line
5.   Quarterbacks
6.   Wide Receivers/Tight Ends
7.   Offensive Line

Season Prediction

Not yet. The preseason SEC East favorite will fall short yet again, as having to face Florida, Tennessee and Auburn all away from home will cost the Bulldogs the division title. A split of the road trips to Georgia Tech and Notre Dame will leave Georgia with just a slim, one-game improvement from last season, turning up the heat on Kirby Smart heading into 2018.

Overall Record: 8-4
SEC Record: 5-3
Final CFP Ranking: 24
Bowl: Music City Bowl vs. Iowa

Matt Smith - Matt is a 2007 graduate of Notre Dame and has spent most of his life pondering why most people in the Mid-Atlantic actually think there are more important things than college football. He has blogged for College Football News, covering both national news as well as Notre Dame and the service academies. He credits Steve Spurrier and Danny Wuerffel for his love of college football and tailgating at Florida, Tennessee, and Auburn for his love of sundresses. Matt covers the ACC as well as the national scene.