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2017 SEC Football Season Preview: Georgia Bulldogs

Georgia should take a big step forward in Kirby Smart’s second season in charge of his alma mater.

NCAA Football: Georgia Spring Game
Georgia QB Jacob Eason
Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports

Record Last Year

8-5 (4-4); T-2nd in SEC East; won Liberty Bowl 31-23 vs. TCU Horned Frogs

Key Returnees

QB Jacob Eason, RB Nick Chubb, RB Sony Michel, RB Brian Herrien, WR Terry Godwin, WR Riley Ridley, TE Isaac Nauta, LT Isaiah Wynn, DE Jonathan Ledbetter, DT Trenton Thompson, DT Julian Rochester, LB Davin Bellamy, LB Roquan Smith, LB Natrez Patrick, LB Lorenzo Carter, S Malkom Parrish, S Dominick Sanders, K Rodrigo Blankenship

Key Departures

WR Isaiah McKenzie, QB Greyson Lambert, QB/P Brice Ramsey, OG Tyler Catalina, OT Greg Pyke, C Brandon Kublanow, CB Maurice Smith, CB Juwuan Briscoe

Key Arrivals

DB DeAngelo Gibbs, DB Richard LeCounte, RB D’Andre Swift, OT D’Marcus Hayes, LB Robert Beal, QB Jake Fromm, OT Isaiah Wilson, OT Andrew Thomas, CB Tray Bishop, DE Malik Herring


What Happened in 2016?

Kirby Smart’s first season in charge of his alma mater had its ups and downs. The Georgia Bulldogs had an unusual season in 2016. They escaped an early season upset bid by FCS Nicholls, winning 26-24 at Sanford Stadium. They also lost a pair of home games to Vanderbilt and Georgia Tech. Not ideal.

However, on a positive note, the Bulldogs did win three of their last four games.

Offensive Preview

NCAA Football: Liberty Bowl-Texas Christian vs Georgia Justin Ford-USA TODAY Sports

Freshman quarterback Jacob Eason appeared much more comfortable in the latter portion of the season. There’s hope that translates to brighter success in 2017. Eason certainly had a strong spring, and that was echoed by Smart, per Marc Weiszer of the Athens Banner-Herald:

He’s got a long way to go but he’s come along way because he understands the protections now, which last year there were times that he did and times that he didn’t. There was a lot on his plate. To manage that offense is challenging coming straight in from high school. He’s in a better place. He’s more confident. He’s throwing the ball good.

The hope is Eason elevates the entire offense with his play. Smart hopes someone opposite Terry Godwin steps up at wide receiver. Riley Ridley and Michael Chigbu have both shown flashes.

NCAA Football: UL Lafayette at Georgia Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports

Tight end Isaac Nauta came into 2016 as one of the top prospects in the country at hisp osition. He had a solid season, catching 29 passes for 361 yards and three TDs. Eason will depend on him more in 2017, so Nauta must take a major step forward.

Eason has arguably the best situation at running back of any quarterback in the country. Not only do Nick Chubb and Sony Michel return, but so does Brian Herrien and Elijah Holyfield. Add in true freshman D’Andre Swift and you have a deep, dynamic backfield.

The biggest reason Georgia struggled at times to run the ball in 2016 was their offensive line. The line, often times, struggled to open holes. Georgia is replacing three starters from that offensive line this year. So, while this group may lack experience, it should be better. Offensive line coach Sam Pittman is one of the best in the country and he has some young and talented players to work with.

As a whole, Georgia averaged just 24.5 PPG in 2016. Fortunately, with so many talented players returning at the skill positions, that should improve this fall.

Defensive Outlook

NCAA Football: Nicholls State at Georgia Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports

The ‘Dawgs return 10 starters in 2017 and are in the second year of playing in Smart’s attacking 3-4 defense. The front seven is loaded, and the secondary has an exciting mix of veteran players and newcomers.

On the defensive line, UG is led by junior defensive end Jonathan Ledbetter and junior defensive tackle Trenton Thompson. Ledbetter was suspended for the first six games of the 2016 season. However, upon his return, he helped stabilize the defensive front. He finished his shortened season with 24 tackles and five quarterback hits. However, Ledbetter must prove he can stay out of trouble.

Thompson is an absolute stud, but he’s had a difficult year. He missed all of the spring after having shoulder surgery and then, for a brief time, wasn’t enrolled in classes.

Thompson’s situation was a mystery for a period of time. However, he’s been more open about it this summer. The decision to replace former defensive line coach Tracy Rocker played a part in Thompson’s unhappiness, according to Seth Emerson of Dawg Nation.

That’s a coach’s decision that coach Rock’s not here. I’m moving on with Tray Scott. Rocker. I think he’s a great coach, I think he’s got good technique for me, I think he’s got the same tools that coach Rock gave to me.

In the Liberty Bowl triumph over TCU, Thompson finished the game with three sacks and was named MVP. That’s the type of player he can be and there’s hope he’ll reach that level in 2017.

While those are the headliners, the Bulldogs have even more talent in the trenches. Nose guard John Atkins and defensive tackle Julian Rochester are also a big part of the defensive line.

At linebacker, Georgia is in an ideal position. They return all four starters, with edge rushers in Lorenzo Carter and Davin Bellamy to pair with inside ‘backers Natrez Patrick and Roquan Smith. Patrick and Smith are both attacking linebackers who are strong versus the run.

Carter is primed for a huge senior season. He was solid in his first full year as a starter last fall but must take his pass-rushing ability to another level in 2017. He is certainly capable but must play with more consistent technique.

In the secondary, UGA lost nickelback Maurice Smith. However, virtually everyone else returns. Free safety Dominick Sanders, a first-team All-SEC pick in 2015, has a shot at becoming the school’s all-time leader in interceptions. Strong safety Malkom Parrish is back, too.

At corner, Georgia also brings back both starters from a year ago in Aaron Davis and Deandre Baker.

In addition to all of the returning experience in the secondary, Georgia brings in a pair of five-star safeties in Richard LeCounte and DeAngelo Gibbs. Both players will play in 2017 and the Bulldogs can afford to bring them along slowly.


Three Key Players

NCAA Football: Georgia Spring Game
Jacob Eason
Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports

Quarterback Jacob Eason

It’s safe to say that Georgia’s hopes of winning the SEC East and competing in the 2017 College Football Playoff hinges heavily on the performance of the sophomore quarterback. Eason struggled at times last season with his accuracy and overall knowledge of the offense. He’s had a strong offseason and is poised for a big year.

NCAA Football: Liberty Bowl-Texas Christian vs Georgia
Georgia RB Nick Chubb
Justin Ford-USA TODAY Sports

RB Nick Chubb

Chubb didn’t look like the same player last season as he had been before. But that was to be expected. He suffered a devastating knee injury in a game at Tennessee two years ago and the mere fact that he was back and starting last year was amazing. He did have some big games, whether it was the season opener versus UNC or in the bowl win over TCU. If Chubb regains some of the explosiveness he had before the injury, he could be set for a record-breaking year.

NCAA Football: Georgia vs Florida
Georgia DT Trenton Thompson
Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

DT Trenton Thompson

It’s been a roller-coaster year for the former five-star recruit. Now, it’s time for Thompson to step up and become the consistent force he is capable of being. He upset Smart last season because he didn’t give his all in practice. He lost his starting job at times because of that.

This summer, he appears more focused than ever and is hoping to deliver on the promise he showed in the bowl victory. He’s truly key for this defense becoming an elite unit.

Prediction

10-2 (6-2 SEC)

Georgia’s 2017 schedule is far from daunting. The ‘Dawgs avoid Alabama and LSU and their toughest nonconference game is at Notre Dame. Did anyone watch Notre Dame in 2016? Not to mention, the Fighting Irish are replacing DeShone Kizer at quarterback.

The rest of Georgia’s nonconference slate includes Samford, Appalachian State and, of course, Georgia Tech. To say that’s a manageable schedule is certainly an understatement.

Georgia will get off to a fast start in 2017. A week 4 tilt against Mississippi State followed by a Week 5 game at Tennessee could be a tough stretch. MSU quarterback Nick Fitzgerald is the least-talked about good quarterback in the country.

However, Georgia’s defense will be one of the best in the country and the offense will improve dramatically from a year and that should be enough to propel the ‘Dawgs into the top spot in the SEC East.