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2016 SEC football season preview: Georgia Bulldogs

Can Kirby Smart, Nick Chubb and Jacob Eason lead Georgia to its first outright SEC East title since 2011?

NCAA Football: Georgia at Auburn Shanna Lockwood-USA TODAY Sports

Record Last Year: 10-3 (5-3 SEC)

Key Returnees: QB Greyson Lambert, RB Nick Chubb, RB Sony Michel, WR Terry Godwin, WR/KR Isaiah McKenzie, RG Greg Pyke, OT Isaiah Wynn, DT Trenton Thompson, LB Lorenzo Carter, LB Tim Kimbrough, CB Malkom Parrish, FS Dominick Sanders

Key Departures: WR Malcolm Mitchell, RB Keith Marshall, LB Jake Ganus, LB Leonard Floyd, LB Jordan Jenkins, DE Sterling Bailey, K Marshall Morgan

Key Arrivals: QB Jacob Eason, TE Isaac Nauta, DB Mecole Hardman, DL Julian Rochester, OL Ben Cleveland, DL Michail Carter, WR Riley Ridley

What Happened Last Year

Last season was a very disappointing one for the Georgia Bulldogs. Star running back Nick Chubb’s injury in early October changed the course of Georgia’s season.

The ‘Dawgs began the season 4-0 before a blowout loss to eventual national champion Alabama in Week 5. Then, the following week, Chubb went down and the Bulldogs lost another SEC game to fall to 4-2 on the season.

As expected, the offense struggled without Chubb. Sony Michel did an admirable job in Chubb’s stead, however, the ‘Dawgs struggled to get anything going consistently in the passing game.

Greyson Lambert, a graduate transfer from Virginia, won the quarterback job and started all but one game. Lambert’s overall numbers were solid, however they also tell a different story. His two interceptions are a bit deceiving as Lambert rarely went downfield with the football. Lambert often played it too safe, frustrating Georgia fans.

UGA’s defense was strong. The Bulldogs were ranked No. 7 against the pass and No. 42 defending the run. Overall, Georgia ranked No. 7 in total defense, allowing just over 305 yards per game.

Ultimately, Georgia’s failures on offense cost longtime head coach Mark Richt his job.

3 Key Players

QB Jacob Eason

Jacob Eason
Brett Davis, USA TODAY Sports

The freshman wunderkind is the future of Georgia football. The question is how soon does that future begin?

Eason, a strong-armed 6’5”, 235-pound passer from Lake Stevens, Wash., enrolled early and has been with the team since the spring. He, along with Lambert and junior Brice Ramsey, have taken turns splitting first-team reps.

Eason has the look and tools of a franchise quarterback. Not only does he have a howitzer of an arm, Eason has an innate feel for the passing game. He understands coverages and is deadly accurate.

The freshman may not start the season opener against North Carolina, but that hardly matters. At some point this season, head coach Kirby Smart will realize he needs his most talented quarterback on the field, regardless of Eason’s inexperience.

RB Nick Chubb

Nick Chubb
Jeremy Brevard, USA TODAY Sports

The star runner is back and he’s healthy. The Bulldogs announced this week that Chubb will play in the season opener. That’s outstanding news for the offense.

Chubb is a game-changing talent capable of carrying the offense. If Eason is under center, Chubb’s presence will help him acclimate to the college game much faster.

The junior running back is poised for a big season. Chubb is the type of back that can carry 25-30 times per game and get stronger as the game progresses. That’s a must in the rugged world of the SEC.

If Chubb remains healthy, he and the Bulldogs will have a big year on offense.

LB Lorenzo Carter

Georgia OLB Lorenzo Carter
Logan Bowles, USA TODAY Sports

The Bulldogs lost both starting outside linebackers from a year ago. Leonard Floyd was a first-round pick by the Chicago Bears, while Jordan Jenkins went in the third round to the New York Jets.

So, who is going to step up replace a pair of All-SEC pass-rushers?

Lorenzo Carter gets the first crack to step into Floyd’s shoes. Carter, 6’6”, 242-pound junior, is a former 5-star recruit that recorded 4 ½ sacks as a freshman two years ago. He didn’t register a sack in 2015 despite playing in 10 games.

Smart’s defense relies heavily on outside pass rushers. Carter has the size and athleticism to give opposing offensive tackles fits. He will have to learn how to use his leverage to his advantage instead of playing too high.

Carter is a fantastic talent and the door is wide open for him to take a major step forward.

Best Case Scenario

11-1 (7-1 SEC): Georgia’s schedule isn’t particularly daunting in 2016. The ‘Dawgs avoid Alabama this season and have Tennessee and Auburn at home. The toughest matchup appears to be a Week 4 visit to Ole Miss.

North Carolina won’t be easy in Week 1, either. The Tar Heels have an explosive offense, fortunately for the Bulldogs they get to face a new starting quarterback. That should play in UGA’s favor.

Outside of UNC, Georgia’s non-conference slate consists of Nicholls, UL Lafayette and Georgia Tech.

Going 11-1 is certainly possible for the ‘Dawgs.

Worst Case Scenario

7-5 (4-4 SEC): It’s hard to see Georgia losing five games considering the schedule it plays. However, if UNC comes out strong in the season opener and lights up the scoreboard, the ‘Dawgs may not have enough offense to keep up.

Back-to-back trips to Missouri and Mississippi won’t be cakewalks, either. Missouri always plays strong defense and Ole Miss QB Chad Kelly is the best passer in the SEC.

Tennessee and Florida are always tough games for Georgia. This year won’t be any different. Tennessee is loaded with talent and the Gators won the SEC East last fall.

And even though Georgia has owned the rivalry of late, you can never count out Georgia Tech.

My Prediction

10-2 (6-2 SEC): North Carolina will test Georgia in Week 1. The Tar Heels like to spread it out on offense and have several talented weapons. But the Bulldogs should be strong enough to leave with the win.

While games at Mizzou and Ole Miss will be tough, the ‘Dawgs should do enough to win those games. Ole Miss will score a lot of points this fall, but given that the game is in Week 4, Eason should be ready to start slinging it around, too.

Games with Florida and Tennessee are always big for the Bulldogs. As of right now, these three teams are as evenly matched as they’ve been in years. Tennessee is loaded up front and if UGA can split between these two teams, the SEC East title is an attainable goal.

If Chubb and Michel are healthy and Eason becomes a star as a freshman, Georgia could challenge for a spot in the College Football Playoff.