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Kirby Smart’s Death Star is almost fully operational. Can the Dawgs finish what they started?

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Georgia lost some key pieces, but the Dawgs are favored in every 2018 game.

NCAA Football: Rose Bowl-Oklahoma vs Georgia
Kirby Smart
Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

Bill C’s annual preview series of every FBS team in college football continues. Catch up here!

We’re in the middle of the story. And it’s impossible to process what we saw last year until the story ends.

It feels like we know exactly where this is headed, though.

In Smart’s second season, he proved to have the juice that so many other former Nick Saban assistants have lacked. After a frustrating 2016 debut, Smart’s Dawgs rolled to a 13-2 record, their first SEC title in 12 years, and a spot in the national title game.

Georgia became one of the very few programs to ever try firing its way out of Glen Mason Territory and have it actually work (as in, replacing a winning coach with an even bigger winner). The Bulldogs surged to third in S&P+, their highest ranking since 1976. They won at Notre Dame, accelerated past Auburn, and won one of nature’s perfect Rose Bowls. Smart raised UGA’s recruiting game to Bama good, and he took the Dawgs to within overtime of the promised land.

The ending, of course, was heart-breaking.

If that were the end of the story, it would feel tragic. But it feels like a mere plot point, a test of character for the protagonist. UGA signed 2018’s top recruiting class. Smart started a freshman quarterback, freshmen on the offensive line, and key sophomores at the front and back of the defense and still nearly took the crown. The depth chart is only going to get more loaded.

It feels like Georgia is, as Howard Schnellenberger might say, on a collision course with destiny, and the only variable is time. And that probably makes last year’s loss a little easier to swallow.

But until the story reaches that point, you don’t know it will get there. Georgia fans know this better than most.

For starters, there’s 2002. That year, Mark Richt’s second UGA team (ding) won 13 games (ding) and an SEC title (ding) and missed a shot at the national title by a gut-wrenching loss to rival (ding) Florida via a Terrence Edwards drop and a pick six.

It felt like UGA was building toward something inevitable, but while the Dawgs managed four top-10 finishes and another SEC title in the next five years, they didn’t eke higher than fifth in the year-end BCS standings.

There’s also 2012. The Dawgs surged back to relevance behind the greatness of linebacker Jarvis Jones and the arm of Aaron Murray. They went 11-1 (ding), took the SEC East crown (ding), moved up to third in the BCS rankings (ding), and nearly pulled off a last-minute win over Alabama (ding). But a batted pass and no timeouts resulted in the most gut-wrenching loss possible (ding) in the best game of the season.

Once again, though, it felt like Georgia was on track. The Dawgs began 2013 in the top five before an incredible series of injuries took away Murray’s supporting cast, then Murray, too. They finished ninth. They got up to seventh in 2015 but finished unranked. That led to Richt’s dismissal and Smart’s hiring.

This could very well be different this time. Richt always recruited well, but Smart’s been otherworldly. And while Richt got within a play of the title game, Smart got to within a play of the title. He’s already further along.

His Dawgs are projected favorites in every 2018 game, too. Only two are projected within single digits. Thanks to a few personnel losses, the Dawgs have a few more questions than Alabama or Clemson, but they might have happy answers. And if they don’t, they’re positioned for chances in 2019, 2020, and beyond.

Offense

You spend all this time thinking about your team in the offseason, looking at it from every angle, and breaking down all the plusses and minuses.

And a few minutes into the season, everything has changed.

The story of Georgia in 2017 was supposed to be how the Dawgs took a step forward now that their blue-chip quarterback, Jacob Eason, was no longer a freshman. Instead, he threw three passes against Appalachian State, got hurt, and got Wally Pipp’d. Another freshman, Jake Fromm, took over and showed no interest in giving up the job.

Early in Fromm’s tenure, Georgia lifted him with elite defense and a terrifying run game. He threw more than 15 times only twice in his first eight games, and thanks in part to distracted defenses, he threw for a 190 passer rating or higher in five of those games. As the season went on, he took on more of a load, and he continued to look the part.

NCAA Football: CFP National Championship Game-Alabama vs Georgia
Jake Fromm
Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

Fromm struggled in a regular season loss to Auburn, but in seven games after November 1 (four of which were against top-10 teams), he completed 63 percent of his passes at 13.3 yards per completion, with 11 touchdowns, three interceptions, and a 150.8 passer rating, and Georgia averaged 32.3 points per game.

Fromm took more sacks than you’d like, and he didn’t add much to the run game (about 2.5 non-sack carries and 14 yards per game), but that’s picking nits. He almost took Georgia to the national title as a true freshman and intended understudy. Enough said.

Now he has to keep his job. Justin Fields, the No. 2 overall prospect in the country per the 247Sports Composite, signed with the Dawgs and has looked the part in fall camp. One has to figure both will see playing time. We’ll see what happens from there.

Assuming this doesn’t become a distraction, the QB will have one of the scariest-on-paper receiving corps in the country. Leading receiver Javon Wims is gone, but senior Terry Godwin is one of the best returning receivers in college football, junior Mecole Hardman nearly matched Godwin’s efficiency, and junior Riley Ridley was huge in the national title game (six catches, 82 yards).

Smart signed two four-star freshman WRs (Kearis Jackson and Tommy Bush) and landed one of the offseason’s highest-touted transfers in Cal’s Demetris Robertson, who caught 50 passes for 767 yards in Berkeley in 2016. The NCAA’s Random Eligibility Determination dart board declared he can suit up this year, too.

We don’t know what coordinator Jim Chaney has in mind for the tight ends, but if he wants to use them more this year (TEs only saw 35 targets in 15 games last year), lord knows the position’s got talent, with five former four- or five-stars (led by junior Isaac Nauta) jockeying.

NCAA Football: Rose Bowl-Oklahoma vs Georgia
Terry Godwin
Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports

The passing game could be terrifying, but the run game took Georgia awfully far last year, and one has to acknowledge the effects of losing Nick Chubb and Sony Michel, who combined for 2,572 yards (6.8 per carry) and 31 touchdowns before both getting selected in the top 35 of the NFL draft. They were the faces of this offense.

The new face makes it hard to worry, though. Sophomore D’Andre Swift averaged 7.5 yards per carry and put the SEC title game away with a 64-yard lightning bolt in the fourth quarter. He’ll be backed up by juniors Brian Herrien and Elijah Holyfield and freshman blue-chipper James Cook, the No. 41 overall prospect. The No. 9 overall prospect and No. 1 back, Zamir White, tore an ACL in fall camp, which is devastating even if it doesn’t hurt too much in 2018. (White’s injury came shortly after this preview was first published.)

The RB corps lacks last year’s experience but features tons of upside, and they’ll be behind a more stable line, too. Georgia handed 27 line starts to freshmen last year and lived to tell the tale. Now five players with 69 career starts return. And it goes without saying that there are blue-chippers (two redshirt freshmen and four true freshmen, including No. 10 prospect Jamaree Salyer and No. 22 Cade Mays) nipping at their heels.

Defense

The security blanket is gone. It’s hard to pretend to worry much about Georgia’s 2018 defense, but Roquan Smith’s loss is something the Dawgs have to prove they can overcome.

I will refrain from waxing too poetic about Smith, but he was amazing. He was UGA’s leading tackler and nearly doubled the total of No. 2 tackler J.R. Reed, a safety. He led the team in tackles for loss (14), sacks (6.5), and total havoc plays (TFLs, passes defensed, and forced fumbles — Smith had 17). He seemingly made every tackle in the second half and overtime of the Rose Bowl win. He’s one of my favorite college football players in recent memory.

This preview is about Georgia and not the Chicago Bears, though. Georgia still returns half of last year’s starters, so let’s talk about them.

NCAA Football: CFP National Championship Game-Alabama vs Georgia
D’Andre Walker
Matthew Emmons-USA TODAY Sports

The front seven loses two of last year’s top four linemen and four of six linebackers. It’s still a battle-tested unit, though. Tackle Tyler Clark and end Jonathan Ledbetter combined for 11.5 TFLs last season, and linebacker D’Andre Walker nearly topped Smith with 13.5 TFLs of his own.

Four other front-seven returnees made at least 15 tackles last year (end David Marshall, nose Julian Rochester, and LBs Natrez Patrick and Monty Rice); that number is five if you also include Notre Dame grad transfer Jay Hayes up front. The line will indeed have plenty of experience, but the LB corps will rely on at least a couple of freshmen or sophomores. Good thing Smart signed five blue-chip LBs, including Adam Anderson (No. 18 overall) and Quay Walker (No. 31), huh?

In the secondary, Reed (five TFLs, seven passes defensed) and corners Deandre Baker and Tyrique McGhee (combined: 19 PDs) are back. That’s a nice starting point. But between the blue-chip sophomores (safeties Richard LeCounte III, Deangelo Gibbs) and the latest batch of blue-chip freshmen — five of them, including Tyson Campbell (No. 12 overall, and yes, that makes eight of the top 31 incoming freshmen in the country wearing Dawg uniforms this fall) — a couple of steady pieces need to emerge.

If this defense falls short of the Def. S&P+ top 10 (and I’m not predicting it), it would probably be because of a few too many glitches in the back.

NCAA Football: Georgia at Georgia Tech
Deandre Baker (18)
Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports

Special Teams

It was almost unfair that UGA was also awesome here. The Dawgs finished third in Special Teams S&P+ thanks to good returns from Mecole Hardman, solid punting from Cameron Nizialek, and absolute dominance from place-kicker Rodrigo Blankenship, who made every kick under 40 yards (including 63 PATs) and went 6-for-9 on longer kicks, too.

Nizialek is the only departure. Assuming a similar level from Blankenship, this is almost certainly a top-10 unit again.

2018 outlook

2018 Schedule & Projection Factors

Date Opponent Proj. S&P+ Rk Proj. Margin Win Probability
1-Sep Austin Peay NR 46.2 100%
8-Sep at South Carolina 35 12.4 76%
15-Sep Middle Tennessee 83 27.5 94%
22-Sep at Missouri 30 10.7 73%
29-Sep Tennessee 79 26.2 94%
6-Oct Vanderbilt 75 25.6 93%
13-Oct at LSU 16 5.6 63%
27-Oct vs. Florida 32 13.9 79%
3-Nov at Kentucky 64 17.8 85%
10-Nov Auburn 5 2.2 55%
17-Nov Massachusetts 102 32.3 97%
24-Nov Georgia Tech 53 21.1 89%
Projected S&P+ Rk 6
Proj. Off. / Def. Rk 7 / 13
Projected wins 10.0
Five-Year S&P+ Rk 12.3 (15)
2- and 5-Year Recruiting Rk 2 / 3
2017 TO Margin / Adj. TO Margin* 4 / 2.9
2017 TO Luck/Game +0.4
Returning Production (Off. / Def.) 60% (65%, 54%)
2017 Second-order wins (difference) 12.8 (0.2)

Really, the only question is whether Georgia is a title contender again or merely awesome. Odds lean toward the former.

It’s not impossible that the offense might get dragged down by a QB controversy and the defense might get gashed through the air. And a schedule that features trips to South Carolina, Missouri, and LSU, an unpredictable rivalry game (Florida), and a visit from projected No. 5 team Auburn could result in a slip-up or two.

It’s also not hard to envision a run awfully similar to last year’s. The run game doesn’t miss a beat with Swift and company, the passing game achieves full lift-off, and the defense — in its third year with Smart and coordinator Mel Tucker — overcomes inexperience at LB and DB with tactics, development, and absurd athleticism.

Despite favoring UGA heavily in most games, S&P+ still says the average Dawg record is closer to 10-2 than 12-0. That’s why it hurts so much to miss a title opportunity — even if you remain awesome, you don’t know for sure when you’ll get another one.

Make no mistake, though: Georgia is going to be within range for the foreseeable future.

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