For those who’ve read my columns at CFB Huddle, you know I’m pretty open about having no clue what to expect from Georgia this season. Rookie head coach. Star player coming off of major surgery. Possibly a true freshman quarterback. Six new starters in the front seven.
If you told me Georgia goes 10-2 and Jacob Eason is the SEC freshman of the year, I could buy it. If you told me it goes 7-5 and suffers from growing pains associated with new coaches, I’d buy that, too.
With that having been said, here’s my best guess at how 2016 goes down. But first, let’s break down the schedule a bit.
Georgia has two of what I like to call body bag games. These are the pay-to-play beatdowns we all know and loathe, but accept exist to ensure the sport thrives. So take Nichols and Louisiana-Lafayette off of the board as those are gimme wins.
The remaining 10 games are (in order) as follows:
UNC (Georgia Dome), @Missouri, @Ole Miss, Tenn, @South Carolina, Vanderbilt, Florida (Jacksonville), @Kentucky, Auburn, and Georgia Tech.
This schedule shapes up for some success. Thus is life in the SEC East, I suppose. No team faces a true gauntlet. If you break these 10 games into to groups, you get games Georgia will be heavily favored—Mizzou, South Carolina, Vandy, Kentucky, Georgia Tech—and games with lines less than a touchdown either way—UNC, Ole Miss, Tennessee, Florida and Auburn.
I like UGA to sweep the first group of games, though Georgia Tech will be one to look out for. That puts the Dawgs at 7 wins to start the year, leaving the “season” coming down to the other five games. Here’s how I see those playing out.
I’ve gone back and forth on this one more than any other game on the schedule. UNC is going to score. A lot. They bring back experience at almost every offensive position save for QB, but Mitch Trubisky is a fourth-year junior who knows Larry Fedora’s system inside and out. Elijah Hood is a premier running back. The WR trio UNC lines up will probably be the best group Georgia sees all year.
On the flip side North Carolina has a sieve for a defense, especially against the run. If North Carolina can sustain success against Georgia’s ground game, it should roll. I don’t see it doing that, but that doesn’t mean I see UNC losing should UGA run all over it because as I said, UNC is going to score. Can UGA win a shootout with North Carolina? That’s the big question. I think it can. Georgia 35-34.
The dearth of quality quarterbacks in the SEC is real, y’all. It’s bad. It’s really bad, actually. Ole Miss is one of the very select few SEC teams without a major question at QB. Chad Kelly Swag™ is a legit dual threat QB. He’ll have a bevy of options at TE and WR, though his options at RB have narrowed thanks to Ole Miss Admin screwing the pooch.
On defense Ole Miss is going to be less spectacular than in the recent past, but coach Hugh Freeze has recruited well. Perhaps too well. This year’s team isn’t devoid of talent per se. While I think Georgia can go into Oxford and win, this is the one game of the year I have firmly entrenched as a loss. The first major road test (with all due respect to Missouri) isn’t a game most first-year coaches win. Ole Miss 27-20.
The Volunteers are the clear favorite to win the SEC East. They’re loaded with experienced talent. Joshua Dobbs enters his final season with 2+ years of starting experience. Jalen Hurd and Alvin Kamara are a dynamic RB duo. The offensive line that was a question mark the last two seasons is finally experienced. It won’t be elite, but it’ll be good enough. The only major question revolves around the passing game, which has been hit or miss. Any consistency there and the Vols are a legit playoff contender.
On defense the Vols might be even better. The front four, led by Derek Barnett and Shy Tuttle, might be the best in the SEC. Cam Sutton (DB) and Jalen Reeves-Maybin (LB) are two of the best in the conference at their positions. Much like the Ole Miss game, I can see a way Georgia wins, but I think it’s far more likely Tennessee’s experience shines through. Tennessee 31-24.
The mental advantage the Gators have enjoyed over Georgia has been significant. Whether or not that carries over with Smart running the show in Athens remains to be seen. The biggest question for the Gators isn’t Luke Del Rio at QB, though he is a question. The real issue is the offensive line. Florida has been deficient on the line for some time, and there’s finally some hope it’ll be at least neutral as opposed to a net negative. Now that Antonio “too stoned to bone” Callaway is back in the good graces of the program, I expect the Gators to be more effective offensively.
Florida is once again blessed with one of the best secondaries in football. All-American candidates Marcus Maye (S) and Jalen Tabor (DB) form perhaps the best S-CB duo in the country. Bryan Cox Jr. and CeCe Jefferson are going to wreck shop on the edge, too. This is the one game I have circled as a fan that intrigues me the most. How does Smart deal with the preparation for this game? Will he own the past or choose to ignore it? Either way, I don’t like Georgia’s chances this year. I think the Gators are being overlooked and will contend for the SEC East. Florida 24-20.
Ah yes… the Barn. Gus Malzahn enters the 2016 season firmly on the hot seat. It doesn’t help Malzahn that his schedule is beastly and he doesn’t have a good option at QB, which is kind of a big deal for his system. While Alabama can plod through to 9-11 wins with a generic QB, Auburn requires a lot out of its signal caller. Add to that the upheaval at RB, where starter Jovon Robinson was booted off of the team this summer, and you have an interesting environment on the Plains.
On defense the Tigers should be good. With three 5* players on the front four alone, one would think Auburn would manhandle most offensive lines, but Carl Lawson seems to be a boom-or-bust player and Monty Adams has been solid, not spectacular. The “x-factor” seems to be Byron Cowart, 2015’s No. 1 player per Rivals. If he clicks Auburn could do some serious damage, especially with Carlton Davis blazing it up and smoking opposing WRs. If the LB play is okay, Auburn could rely on its defense for the first time since Tommy Tuberville roamed the sidelines. Auburn is going to struggle to hit seven wins, but more so due to a laughably hard schedule. It can go into Athens and beat Georgia, especially with how Smart’s Alabama defenses struggled against Malzahn’s system. However, come mid-November I think Georgia will be a much better team. I expect the Dawgs to excel down the stretch. Georgia 37-27.
Final Thoughts and Predictions:
I think Georgia will show promise and inexperience in equal measure this year. A big part of me has UNC winning a shootout in the Dome to start the year, but early reviews of Georgia’s offensive line plus a healthy Nick Chubb has me a bit more optimistic than a few weeks ago. I initially tweeted out Georgia going 8-4 as I had penciled in a loss to UNC, but I’ll go on the record and change that now.
As far as who will start come Sept. 3, I do think Greyson Lambert is the most likely option, however I would expect Eason to get 4-5 series to see what he can do. I would expect Eason to be the full-time starter by week-3, when Georgia travels to Missouri.
Speaking of Missouri, I wouldn’t expect to see Sony Michel until that game. By many accounts he’s coming along nicely after suffering a compound fracture in his arm, but it’s going to be tight to get him ready for UNC, and if he’s not ready for UNC there’s no reason to play him the following week against Nichols.
As for breakout players, on offense I like Elijah Holyfield to get some solid burn, but I think Charlie Woerner is going to be a nightmare for teams. Too big for a DB, too fast for a LB.
On defense I expect Natrez Patrick to be a beast. He’s the only ILB Georgia has that fits the physical mold of what Smart had at Alabama. While I’m not sure if he counts as a breakout player or not, Trenton Thompkins is going to show why he was a No. 1 overall player according to some services.
*header image via the Red and Black