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The Georgia Bulldogs took on a voluntary rebuild. How’s that going?

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Will Kirby Smart’s second team be a division champ or just a more experienced version of his five-loss team?

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

Perceptions are an incredible thing. If Georgia were your typical rebuild job — say, a South Carolina situation, in which the product fell off late in a great coach’s tenure, then fell some more — then it would be easy to say Kirby Smart’s efforts are pretty encouraging.

Despite a reset of sorts on both sides of the ball, Smart’s first team won eight games, beat rival Auburn, and won a bowl game, then inked a spectacular recruiting class, the third-best in the country.

This wasn’t a South Carolina situation, though. This was, for all intents and purposes, a voluntary rebuild.

Smart inherited one of the stablest programs in the country, one that fielded one iffy team in 2015 after four straight excellent ones ... and had still won 10 games with that iffy team. Georgia declared that it wants all the recruits and all the rivalry wins; Mark Richt’s 10 wins per year weren’t enough.

Richt was more successful than Vince Dooley, and he was regarded to be one of the best men in football. He had bounced back from downturns before in his 15 years as Georgia head coach. A couple of lean classes had created a two-deep less plump than he was used to, but odds were good he’d get past it. But instead of renovating the mansion, UGA athletic director Greg McGarity tore it down to build a new one.

I’m not going to lie: I’ve enjoyed needling Georgia fans over the last year and a half. They were unhappy with winning more than almost any team in the country (the “almost” has been an issue for SEC programs), and most fully supported a fresh start. Now they’re talking themselves into being happy with an eight-win Smart debut.

It’s a strange place to be, considering Richt went to Miami, won nine games with an inferior roster, and heads into 2017 the ACC Coastal favorite. Georgia, meanwhile, is projected 7-5.

The Dawgs aren’t far from something great, mind you. S&P+ says they have at least a 40 percent chance of winning in 11 games, and lord knows the offense has the pieces to exceed its own No. 54 projection. If the Dawgs perform a little beyond projections, they’ll probably be back in the SEC title game for the first time since 2012, and, well, a coach’s second year is his biggest opportunity to take a leap forward.

For the most part, the trends are easy to spot. If your performance has been awful, you’re probably going to improve by a decent amount. If you’ve been around average, you’ll move toward zero. And if you’re a first-year coach taking over an elite program, you’re probably going to sink.

But in your second year, no matter what, you’re probably going to improve.

But what if they don’t? What if they only improve to projected levels, again finish below the bar that Richt set, and again finish below the bar that Richt is setting at Miami?

Regardless of the optics, it’s not hard to see why many have decided that UGA will be a top-20 team this year. If you look at the best version we’ve seen of certain Bulldog players and units — quarterback Jacob Eason, running backs Nick Chubb and Sony Michel, the defensive front seven that returns completely intact, a senior-laden secondary — you see a team with a massive ceiling, complemented by elite recruiting.

Granted, you also see an offensive line that is thin and terribly unproven. But that’s still massive net upside, especially if you close your eyes and remember how good Chubb was early in 2015.

We saw the floor a lot last year, though. The Dawgs beat UNC, then tried their damnedest to lose to Nicholls State. They pulled off a last-second win at Missouri, then got destroyed by Ole Miss. They handled South Carolina in Columbia, then lost to Vanderbilt at home. They lost to rival Georgia Tech after beating Auburn.

Maybe this was to be expected of a team with a freshman quarterback and a two-deep young enough that most of it now returns. Maybe it would have all unfolded the same way (or worse) with Richt. Even Smart’s former boss needed a season to establish expectations and install the culture at Alabama, and maybe Georgia fans will be doing all the needling in a few months.

But maybe not.


2016 in review

2016 Georgia statistical profile.

Georgia basically had three seasons in one last year. Each was exciting in one way and frustrating in another.

  • First 4 games (3-1): Avg. percentile performance: 36% | Avg. yards per play: Opp 6.0, UGA 5.4 (minus-0.6) | Avg. performance vs. S&P+ projection: minus-18.0 PPG
  • Next 6 games (3-3): Avg. percentile performance: 63% | Avg. yards per play: UGA 5.1, Opp 4.3 (plus-0.8) | Avg. performance vs. S&P+ projection: plus-6.7 PPG
  • Last 3 games (2-1): Avg. percentile performance: 55% | Avg. yards per play: UGA 6.3, Opp 6.2 (plus-0.1) | Avg. performance vs. S&P+ projection: plus-6.7 PPG

UGA began the year hilariously unstable, posting a rock-solid performance against UNC, duds against Nicholls and Ole Miss, and something in between against Missouri.

Then, as Eason got a little bit of experience and the team figured out what was expected of it, things improved. They went toe-to-toe against Tennessee before losing via Hail Mary in one of the wildest games of the season. They beat a good Auburn team and a peaking Kentucky, then suffered a terribly unlikely loss to Vanderbilt. The defense rounded into form, even if the offense began struggling at the same time.

The final act: an unimpressive win over UL-Lafayette, a loss to Georgia Tech, and a solid win over TCU. The offense got better just in time for the defense to regress again.

This was an up-and-down year, something plenty of great coaches have dealt with in their first seasons.


Offense

Georgia offensive radar

Full advanced stats glossary.

Chubb’s junior season began with a wonderfully Chubb-like performance; he powered the Dawgs’ win over UNC with a 32-carry, 222-yard performance (6.9 yards per carry). He ended by rushing 55 times for 338 yards (6.1) in his final three games.

The nine games in between: a mediocre 137 carries for 570 yards (4.1).

The recipe was pretty easy. When Chubb averaged at least 6 yards per carry in a game, Georgia scored at least 28 points. When he didn’t, and when Michel couldn’t pick up the slack (as he did against Kentucky and Georgia Tech), there was way too much pressure on Eason.

The up-and-down fortunes of Georgia’s run game created a unique set of full-season stats. Dawg rushers gained at least five yards on 44 percent of their carries (15th in FBS) but got stuffed 21 percent of the time (94th). They were reasonably efficient (57th in rushing success rate) but produced few big plays (seven gains of 30-plus yards, 79th) and somehow stunk in short yardage situations (113th in power success rate).

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

That must stabilize. The return of Chubb and Michel, not to mention intriguing third-stringer Brian Herrien, will help. With Chubb another year removed from the awful knee injury that ended his 2015, he might find fifth gear more often. And, as this is Georgia, there are two more former star recruits waiting their turn: four-star sophomore Elijah Holyfield, son of Evander, and five-star freshman D’Andre Swift.

That’s great news! Now ... will they have any blocking? Georgia ranked 101st in Adj. Line Yards and 82nd in Rushing S&P+ last year, then lost three starters from an already shaky line. Guards Isaiah Wynn and Lamont Gaillard are back, but beyond them are mostly unknowns.

There are plenty of star recruits, sure. Senior Dyshon Sims, Michael Barnett, sophomore Pat Allen, redshirt freshman Ben Cleveland, JUCO transfer D’Marcus Hayes, and freshmen Andrew Thomas and Netori Johnson were all four-star prospects, and freshman Isaiah Wilson was a five-star and, per the 247Sports Composite, one of the 20 best recruits in 2017.

If line coach Sam Pittman can find the right concoction and keep it on the field, maybe everything will click. But there are a lot of strong run defenses on the schedule, and despite the monstrous ceiling — Chubb had gained 2,294 yards in just 311 career carries (7.4 per carry) before his injury — we won’t know this run game is fully weaponized until it is.

NCAA Football: Georgia at Kentucky
Jacob Eason
Mark Zerof-USA TODAY Sports

When the run clicked, the pass did, too, so it’s easy to assume that if Chubb and Michel are rolling, Eason’s job will be pretty easy. But it’s still alarming that the Dawgs ranked 91st in Passing S&P+ and 80th in Passing Downs S&P+ last season. That’s lower than you’d like, even with a freshman behind center. And that was with Isaiah McKenzie.

McKenzie and sophomore Riley Ridley were basically the only big-play receivers Eason had. Ridley caught only 12 of 26 passes but averaged 19.8 yards per catch, while blue-chip tight end Isaac Nauta had a team-best 53 percent success rate over 45 targets. If that’s a sign of things to come, Georgia could have a pretty incredible passing game, in 2018 at least.

Are they ready to carry a heavier load? And is former blue-chipper Terry Godwin ready to produce more than a 37 percent success rate and 10.4 yards per catch out of the slot? If not, does five-star sophomore Mecole Hardman barge into the lineup?

Defense

Georgia defensive radar

We’ll start with what Georgia’s defense didn’t do well enough:

  • The Dawgs weren’t very disruptive, ranking 59th in havoc rate, 101st in stuff rate, and 110th in power success rate.
  • That passivity rubbed off in a 59 percent completion rate that ranked 72nd. They occasionally let opponents off the hook and ranked 51st in Passing Downs S&P+.
  • It also might have played a role in poor red zone execution — UGA allowed 4.8 points per scoring opportunity, 95th.

Meanwhile, here’s what Georgia’s defense was good at:

  • Basically everything else.

Georgia ranked 34th in overall success rate and 12th in IsoPPP (which measures the magnitude of successful plays). They were 19th in Standard Downs S&P+, 28th in Rushing S&P+, and 29th in Passing S&P+.

They fell from 11th in Def. S&P+ to 35th, but they were fielding almost all freshmen and sophomores up front, all sophomores and juniors at linebacker, and mostly juniors in the secondary. Richt’s recent iffy recruiting had left a leadership void in spots.

The Bulldogs now return one of the most experienced two-deeps in the country. And the weaker players on the depth chart will get serious challenges from three four- or five-star freshmen on the line, three at linebacker (plus a four-star redshirt freshman), and four in the secondary.

NCAA Football: Vanderbilt at Georgia
Trenton Thompson
Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports

Georgia was good at most things but great at few. That will probably change in 2017: it would be surprising if the Dawgs didn’t field at least a top-15 run defense. Junior Trenton Thompson (9.5 tackles for loss, five sacks) is both a boulder and an agile play-maker, senior Davin Bellamy has taken well to the jack linebacker role (typically the best pass rusher in the Smart/Saban defense), and most of the former star recruits — tackles Julian Rochester and Tyler Clark, end Jonathan Ledbetter, linebackers Roquan Smith, Natrez Patrick, Lorenzo Carter, etc. — have shown sporadic promise.

The front seven will also damn sure pass the eye test. Of the top nine returning linemen, all are at least 6’3, and five are at least 305 pounds. Smith and Carter aside, most of the linebackers are at least 6’3 and 230.

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

The secondary is exciting, but it seems to go straight from seniors to freshmen on the depth chart. Veteran safeties Aaron Davis and Dominick Sanders and corners Malkom Parrish and Deandre Baker are all back, and sophomore nickel Tyrique McGhee is back after getting his feet wet.

Four other contributors have departed, though, which likely means that a stacked set of freshmen will fill the second string pretty quickly. Five-star safety Richard Lecounte III and four-stars Deangelo Gibbs, Tray Bishop, and William Poole III are around to provide immediate competition. You never want to rely on freshmen because even awesome frosh make rookie mistakes, but one assumes the pass defense won’t regress much.

So what about that havoc? Might the Dawgs cause more of it? It’s hard to guarantee, but I’d say the odds are good. Getting Thompson, Bellamy, Parish, and company back is big, as is the second-year “everybody knows their role” impact. And if the Dawgs add a few more impact plays, they’ll be in the Def. S&P+ top 15, as they were before Smart arrived.


Special Teams

One plus of combining a dynamic freshman class with a two-deep that returns mostly intact: that could mean lots of dynamite athletes on special teams. That’s great news, as the Dawgs needed some help last year. They ranked 94th in Special Teams S&P+.

Of course, the problem was more in the legs and not the coverage. Punter Marshall Long averaged just 38.7 yards per punt, and the Dawgs ranked 124th in punt success rate. UGA ranked 94th in place-kicking, too, but that mostly stabilized when Rodrigo Blankenship took over kicking duties midseason.

Losing Reggie Davis and Isaiah McKenzie means having to replace a scary couple of return men. That’s where a freshman could come in handy.


2017 outlook

2017 Schedule & Projection Factors

Date Opponent Proj. S&P+ Rk Proj. Margin Win Probability
2-Sep Appalachian State 62 13.2 78%
9-Sep at Notre Dame 17 -3.8 41%
16-Sep Samford NR 35.5 98%
23-Sep Mississippi State 30 7.2 66%
30-Sep at Tennessee 24 -0.4 49%
7-Oct at Vanderbilt 63 8.4 69%
14-Oct Missouri 53 12.0 76%
28-Oct vs. Florida 15 -4.4 40%
4-Nov South Carolina 36 9.1 70%
11-Nov at Auburn 9 -9.1 30%
18-Nov Kentucky 41 10.0 72%
25-Nov at Georgia Tech 31 2.2 55%
Projected S&P+ Rk 20
Proj. Off. / Def. Rk 54 / 11
Projected wins 7.4
Five-Year S&P+ Rk 12.5 (18)
2- and 5-Year Recruiting Rk 6 / 6
2016 TO Margin / Adj. TO Margin* 8 / 4.3
2016 TO Luck/Game +1.4
Returning Production (Off. / Def.) 81% (77%, 85%)
2016 Second-order wins (difference) 7.8 (0.2)

This might have been an unnecessary rebuild, but a rebuild it has become. And it’s hard to separate two prevailing thoughts:

  1. This team has mammoth upside. Chubb. Michel. An enormous defensive line. An experienced secondary. The fact that you can’t walk two feet without running into a former blue-chipper.
  2. This team had most of that upside last year and only rarely showed it.

If you’re looking for candidates for a second-year leap, the list likely starts with Smart’s Dawgs, but it takes a leap (sorry) of faith to simply assume it.

And no matter what we assume, we risk feeling stupid about this team.

  • If Chubb is 2015 Chubb again, the offense is soaring, and the run defense is rendering everyone one-dimensional, Georgia will go 10-2 or better and make doubters like me feel silly.
  • But if 2017 Georgia looks like a more experienced version of 2016 Georgia, and Eason doesn’t develop that much, and Chubb never finds fifth gear, then 6-6 or 7-5 are on the table, and we feel silly for assuming greatness.

This makes Georgia one of the most intriguing teams in the country. And I promise I won’t root against the Dawgs, even if it would give my argument more ammo.

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