No. 12 Georgia
The transition year for new head coach Kirby Smart and freshman quarterback Jacob Eason is done. Now it's time for Georgia to start competing for the SEC championship.
The Bulldogs have as much returning talent as any playoff contender, including 10 starters on a defense that could be one of the nation's best.
2016 Record: 8-5 (4-4, SEC)
Georgia failed to win 10 games for just the second time in the last six seasons and fifth time since 2002.
They did, however, have a relatively smooth transition from longtime head coach Mark Richt to first-time head coach Kirby Smart, remaining competitive in the SEC and picking up solid wins over North Carolina, Auburn and TCU.
Three of their five losses came by a combined five points, including a one-point home loss to Vanderbilt, just their third loss to the Commodores since 1994.
Head Coach: Kirby Smart (2nd year, 8-5 overall)
Kirby Smart finally left Alabama after nine successful seasons in which he became arguably the most sought-after assistant coach in the country. He returned to his alma mater Georgia, where he was a defensive back two decades ago.
Though his first head coaching job got off to an adequate start, he was brought to Athens to win SEC championships — plural.
“…[Our] players expect to win,” Smart said at SEC Media Day. “And we don't want players who don't expect to win. You're going to be one of the best players in the country, coming from one of the best states in the country, one of the best high school football states in the country. We expect them to come in with that attitude and demeanor. You create that, and it permeates your program by how you carry yourself and perform on the field.”
Key Returning Offensive Players
QB Jacob Eason, RB Nick Chubb, RB Sony Michel, WR Terry Godwin, WR Riley Ridley, WR Javon Wims, TE Isaac Nauta, OT Isaiah Wynn, C Lamont Gaillard
While Georgia returns more than 87 percent of their offensive yards from a year ago — the third-highest total in the SEC — they need more than experience to turn around an oft-stagnant group that averaged 24.5 points per game.
"We’re going to start playing faster,” senior receiver Javon Wims said. “We’re going to start using our strengths, our personnel to our advantage.”
That starts with quarterback Jacob Eason, who won the starting job as a strong-armed true freshman and mostly played well, throwing for 2,430 yards, 16 touchdowns and eight interceptions. He led a couple comebacks and made some big throws but still completed just 55 percent of his passes and could've had twice as many interceptions.
“Last year I was a younger guy, I was still trying to learn the offense on the fly, I was trying to keep my head above the water in that aspect of it,” Eason said at the start of fall camp. “This year I have more comfort in our schemes and our playbooks. So I feel like I can line guys up, I can tell them what to do, I can help them out when they run a wrong route, and that kind of thing.”
Eason lost his top playmaker in do-it-all receiver Isaiah McKenzie but does get back four of his top five receiving targets, including and All-American candidate at tight end in Isaac Nauta and big-play threat in receiver Riley Ridley, who averaged 19.8 yards per catch in limited time.
The offensive line lost three starters but returns senior tackle Isaiah Wynn and center Lamont Gallard.
Key Returning Defensive Players
DT Trenton Thompson, LB Roquan Smith, LB Lorenzo Carter, LB Davin Bellamy, S Dominick Sanders
The defense returns 10 starters from a unit that ranked in the nation's top 20 in passing, total defense, turnovers forced and first downs given up. They're led by a feared front seven that features numerous future NFL players, including junior tackle Trenton Thompson.
He was dominant in the Liberty Bowl against TCU, racking up eight tackles, 3.5 tackles for loss and three sacks. He missed all of spring practice and the spring semester with an undisclosed illness but returned this summer.
“The best thing Trenton does is he turns, and he runs to the ball really fast, so his cover down on short passes and going to get the ball,” Smart said. “He is a great energy guy, so I have been pleased with where Trenton is.”
He'll team with disruptive outside linebackers Lorenzo Carter and Davin Bellamy to form one of the nation's best attacking defenses at the line of scrimmage.
The secondary has a lot of experience but needs improvement, especially from senior safety Dominick Sanders. An All-SEC performer in 2015, the 6-foot, 193-pounder was still productive last year (three interceptions) but never looked comfortable. He's been lauded for his offseason work and repeatedly called a leader by the staff and younger players.
"A lot of the young guys are kind of mentally destroyed,” Sanders said in early August. “They’re looking at the playbook as a lot. But as a bigger brother and a leader, I had to tell those guys that you’ve just got to focus on your position and not look at it as a lot right now.”
Notable Player Losses
WR Isaiah McKenzie
Isaiah McKenzie left one year earl and was a fifth-round pick of the Denver Broncos in April's draft. The diminutive speedster rebounded from an injury-riddled 2015 campaign by catching 44 passes for 633 yards and seven scores. He also had one return touchdown and 19 carries for 134 yards.
Notable Player Additions
OT Isaiah Wilson, G Solomon Kindley, S Richard LeCounte III
With nearly three dozen key players returning, there is little room for additions. However, many freshmen should earn two-deep spots by the conclusion of fall camp.
Solomon Kindley is a redshirt freshman in line for the starting right guard spot. He was a late enrollee last year and did appear in one game before sitting out.
“He struggled last fall camp, he could block most 3-techniques and all of our freshmen, but he really struggled getting the call, going to the line and knowing the snap count, a lot of things that freshmen struggle with,” Smart said. “Over the spring he erased 70-to-80 percent of those mistakes. Still mistakes, but a lot less."
Elsewhere, two five-star recruits are competing for snaps in Isaiah Wilson and Richard LeCounte. Wilson is behind Isaiah Wynn at left tackle but don't be surprised if they shuffle pieces to get him immediate playing time.
Georgia's non-conference schedule is highlighted by a trip to Notre Dame for their second all-time meeting with the Irish — and first since the 1981 Sugar Bowl, though Smart insists they're not looking past Appalachian State a week earlier.
"We know the kind of team. I know the head coach at App State who does a tremendous job," he said. "I think it would be remiss to talk about the second game without first concerning yourself with Appalachian State, who does a tremendous job of recruiting our state and has a great senior quarterback that I got a lot of respect for."
They open SEC play two weeks later at home against Mississippi State before back-to-back road games in Tennessee against the Vols and Vandy. Four of the six games are at home, including an Oct. 28 game against Florida that will be huge in the SEC East race.
|Saturday, Sept. 2||vs. Appalachian State|
|Saturday, Sept. 9||at Notre Dame|
|Saturday, Sept. 16||vs. Samford|
|Saturday, Sept. 23||vs. Mississippi State|
|Saturday, Sept. 30||at Tennessee|
|Saturday, Oct. 7||at Vanderbilt|
|Saturday, Oct. 14||vs. Missouri|
|Saturday, Oct. 28||vs. Florida|
|Saturday, Nov. 4||vs. South Carolina|
|Saturday, Nov. 11||at Auburn|
|Saturday, Nov. 18||vs. Kentucky|
|Saturday, Nov. 25||at Georgia Tech|