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College Football Preview 2018: 5. Georgia Bulldogs

5. Georgia Bulldogs

Last year was no fluke; Kirby Smart is building a potential superpower in Athens

Jake Fromm
Offense: Prior to 2017 if you had told any Georgia fan they would go 13-2 and make the National Championship Game, they would assume sophomore QB Jacob Eason, a former five-star recruit, had just put together a breakout season leading the Bulldogs. Yet, in reality it wasn't Eason at all but backup Jake Fromm who had the breakthrough year. After Eason went down with injury, the true freshman stepped in and delivered, looking like a multi-year veteran as he finished with 2,615 yards and 24 touchdowns. Eason has since transferred, leaving the sophomore as the likely starter, although five-star newcomer Justin Fields could make things interesting. If Fromm can continue to grow as a downfield passer and play smart football, which he did for much of 2017, he has a legit claim as one of the top signal-callers in the SEC.

Fromm will likely have to take on a larger role than the 19 pass attempts he averaged last season, due to the fact UGA loses their top two rushers, Nick Chubb and Sony Michel. Both entered with each other as freshmen and left as seniors, putting together illustrious Georgia careers. The pair combined for 2,572 yards and 21 touchdowns last year, leaving head coach Kirby Smart and offensive coordinators Jim Chaney and James Coley with plenty of production to replace. However, sophomore D'Andre Swift looks like the next in a long line of superb UGA running backs, after notching 618 yards on just 81 attempts (7.6 YPC). Swift is much more explosive than either Chubb or Michel and a better receiver than the pair, but it may be a lot to ask for him to completely replace the combo. The good news is that he will be helped by a running back committee that still includes Elijah Holyfield and Brian Herrien, two rock-solid veterans. That trio should be more than enough for UGA to once again be one of the best running teams in the SEC and college football as a whole, even if highly touted freshman Zamir White won't be able to join them, as he tore his ACL in fall camp. 

Georgia has a good core of underrated receivers, which includes senior Terry Godwin and junior Riley Ridley. Godwin is their most sure-handed option, as the veteran hauled in 38 receptions for 639 yards and six touchdowns a year ago. Meanwhile, Ridley is the most likely breakout candidate on the outside, as the younger brother of former Alabama star Calvin played well down the stretch in 2017. Smart and staff got a huge addition this off-season, when Cal transfer Demetris Robertson first announced he was transferring to Georgia, then was ruled eligible. Robertson earned Freshman All-American honors in 2016 after managing 767 and seven touchdowns before missing most of 2017 with injury. Fully healthy and ready to go, some UGA fans believe the big play Robertson is the missing piece to a Championship team. The Bulldogs should also be well-equipped at tight end, where junior Isaac Nauta, another former high-profile recruit, looks ready to finally have a breakout season.

Up front, Georgia will have the benefit of returning most of their offensive line, with the only major loss being NFL Draftee Isaiah Wynn. Seniors Kendall Baker and Lamont Gaillard are two of the best interior blockers in the country, and should clear massive running lanes for Swift and company. A pair of freshmen, Cade Mays and Jamaree Salyer, both big gets for the Georgia staff, could compete for playing time right away.

Even without Chubb and Michel to lean on, this Georgia offense has the chance to be very special. Swift and the rest of the running backs should be able to keep the ground game potent, while the aerial attack has the chance to be the best it has been in some time. Kirby Smart is a defensive-minded guy, but he has done an excellent job creating a Championship-level offense, something that shouldn't be overlooked as he enters Year 3 in Athens.

Defense: There are some heavy losses on the defensive end for Georgia, but the way Smart and this staff has recruited, it should be able to reload and still be among the best in the SEC.

The defensive line could end up being the backbone of this defense, as a number of contributors are returning. Senior Jonathan Ledbetter has had a lot of off-the-field issues that have overshadowed what he can actually do on the football field, but he hopes to have put that all behind him. The veteran pass rusher had 38 tackles and 5 TFL in 11 starts a year ago. Junior defensive tackle Tyler Clark is also back after a highly productive 2017 where he proved to be one of the better interior linemen in the conference. However, UGA seems most excited about his likely partner at tackle, junior Julian Rochester. Rochester is another former high profile recruit still trying to fulfill his vast potential, but rumors out of Athens is that he has looked great in the spring and in fall camp. It looks like if Rochester is ever going to break out, this could be the year. 

While the line has a number of veterans returning and solid overall depth, the linebacker corps is in a clear rebuilding stage. They must replace four starters, including inside linebacker Roquan Smith, whose 137 tackles and 14 TFL earned him the tenth spot in Heisman voting and a first round NFL Draft selection. Senior Natrez Patrick is the only projected starter that has seen hefty snaps, but he has also battled off-the-field problems. With that being said, the Bulldogs will likely lean heavily on the senior in run support, and he'll have to step up. Both outside linebacker positions will be interesting to watch, as a number of reserves from last year are facing incoming recruits for starting gigs. Sophomore Walter Grant and senior D'Andre Walker played well in a rotational role last season, and Georgia hopes they are able to step into larger roles. Walker is especially talented as an edge rusher, coming off a year in which he managed five sacks. The veterans will have to fend off a number of highly touted newcomers, including explosive OLB Adam Anderson and hybrid end/linebacker Brenton Cox.

In the secondary, the Bulldogs also have veteran experience, but will still hope others can step up. Senior corner Deandre Baker is considered by some as the best cornerback in the conference, as the shut-down defender is coming off a year in which he had three interceptions and nine pass deflections. Teams will most likely throw away from Baker as much as possible, putting some pressure on sophomore Mark Webb and junior Tyrique McGhee, the favorites to start at the opposite corner slot. At safety, UGA brings back steady veteran J.R. Reed, a hard-hitting strong safety that does a lot of things well. Paired with rising sophomore Richard LeCounte, Georgia could actually be pretty versatile and rangy on the back-end. Another youngster to watch: cornerback Tyson Campbell arrives from Florida with plenty of fanfare. Some believe he can compete for big-time snaps right away, considering how thin they are at corner.

Considering that Georgia lost a ton of production and leadership from last year's group, it is hard to imagine this defense not taking a step backward in 2018. Yet, Kirby Smart has a little bit of experience reloading a defense that was hit hard by NFL defections, considering he did it on a yearly basis while at Alabama. The real key will be the linebacker situation; if Patrick and Walker emerge as leaders and some of the young guys play important roles as reserves, this defense should still be very strong, and continue to hang with the best the SEC has to offer.

Special Teams: Having a consistent kicker can be key for teams with National Title aspirations, and the Bulldogs happen to have just that in junior Rodrigo Blankenship. Blankenship was 20/23 on field goals last season, and showed just how big of a leg he had, making two 50-plus yard field goals in the postseason. Punter will be a slight concern without any clear-cut starter returning, but Mecole Hardman ensures the return game will be as scary as ever.

Georgia made the jump from a middle-of-the-pack SEC East team to a National Championship team a year ago, but it didn't feel like a fluke whatsoever. Kirby Smart has come into Athens and proven he can recruit at a high level and develop that top-notch talent. The Bulldogs are starting to resemble Alabama every single day, but this season will be telling for UGA. Are they at the level where they can lose over 2,500 yards of rushing and eight starters defensively and still be a Playoff team? They have the talent to do just that, but there are likely to be some growing pains in 2018. The good news is that the schedule is pretty light, and they are still the clear favorite in a rebuilding SEC East. If Fromm can continue to grow and the defense finds some answers, a second consecutive Playoff berth could certainly be in the cards for Smart and company.

Team Projections
Projected Record: 11-2 (7-1 SEC, Lose in SEC Championship)
Offensive MVP: QB Jake Fromm
Defensive MVP: CB Deandre Baker
Breakout Player of the Year: RB D'Andre Swift

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