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College Football Preview 2021: 3. Georgia Bulldogs

J.T. Daniels, Georgia


3. Georgia Bulldogs

Loaded offensive skill positions and key late additions make it Playoff or bust in Athens this fall

2020 Review
Quarterback controversy surrounded much of Georgia's 2020 season. The Bulldogs added a pair of big-name transfers over the off-season in Jamie Newman from Wake Forest and J.T. Daniels from USC, but Newman opted out just weeks before the start of the year. With Daniels not yet medically cleared from a torn ACL he suffered while at USC, the Bulldogs turned to D'Wan Mathis to start their opener against Arkansas. Despite the fact UGA won, Mathis struggled mightily, and the Bulldogs then shifted to a former walk-on, Stetson Bennett. Bennett was serviceable enough to keep the Bulldogs in the SEC Title hunt for awhile, but he was benched after the Florida loss in favor of Daniels. Daniels won all four of his starts in relief, helping UGA finish the year with an 8-2 record and New Year's Six Bowl victory. He enters 2021 as the clear-cut starter for a Georgia team that will have lofty expectations this fall.

2021 Outlook
Offense: Daniels didn't disappoint in his four starts last season, finishing with 1,231 yards and 10 touchdowns. Three of his starts (Mississippi State, South Carolina, Missouri) were against average to poor pass defenses, but tossing for 392 against a stout Cincinnati defense proved that the former Gatorade National Player of the Year was worthy of the hype. He enters the 2021 campaign as one of the top signal-callers in the SEC and a serious Heisman candidate.

Zamir White finally got his opportunity to shine for UGA in 2020, and he proved to be productive. "Zeus" notched 779 yards and 11 scores in the shortened season, showcasing powerful running ability and impressive vision. He looks to continue a long line of Georgia tailbacks who have had tremendous college careers then gone on to the NFL. White is joined in the backfield by veteran James Cook and potential breakout candidate Kendall Milton. Cook is a crafty back who can make plays as a receiver out of the backfield, while Milton was one of the top RB recruits in the Class of 2020. Milton finished with 193 yards last season, but came on strong in the win over Tennessee and loss to Alabama. 

Georgia received rough news in the spring when projected No. 1 wideout George Pickens tore his ACL. There's still some hope Pickens will return at some point in 2021, but his timeline is unclear. His prolonged absence will force others into even larger roles, namely Kearis Jackson, Jermaine Burton, and Dominick Blaylock, who missed all of 2020 with an injury of his own. Jackson actually eclipsed Pickens in yardage in 2020 and has shown he can be a top guy, while Burton's versatility will be a major plus for this offense. Arian Smith, who had just two catches in 2020, is another name to watch. Smith is one of the fastest players anywhere in college football and could become a real deep threat, but he'll have to prove it first.

Tight end is a strength for this offense, as sophomore Darnell Washington came on strong down the stretch a year ago and should be ready for even greater things. At 6'7", 265 pounds with surprising nimbleness, he is sure to be a problem for opposing defensive coordinators. Highly touted freshman Brock Bowers also arrives in Athens and may see some early playing time.

The big news at tight end this season may actually be a brand new addition in LSU transfer Arik Gilbert. Gilbert was considered one of the highest ranked TE recruits in the history of college football before putting together a solid freshman year in LSU. The Georgia native adds another element to this UGA offense, as he may be used as both a tight end and wide receiver. However, recent rumors out of Athens is that he has been away from the time at the time of publishing, due to personal issues. Assuming he's able to come back, he may be one of the most impactful transfers of the off-season.

The Bulldog offensive line underwent a slight rebuild in 2020, but should be a strength once more in '21. Three starters return to the group, and there's plenty of depth at nearly every position. Guards Jamaree Salyer and Justin Shaffer should power the Georgia rushing attack all season long. Salyer has played 36 games in his Bulldog career at just about every spot on this offensive line. He will enter the fall as one of the best linemen not just in the SEC, but nationally. Left tackle may be a slight concern, but sophomore Xavier Truss, who started the Peach Bowl win, is slated to take over.

The hiring of offensive coordinator Todd Monken prior to last season was supposed to bring the Georgia offense into the 21st century offensively, but the weird QB situation restricted what they could do. A year later then hoped expect a very improved group, with playmakers everywhere and a skilled quarterback running the show. This offense has the talent to be the best in the SEC, particularly with Alabama reloading in multiple spots.

Defense: Georgia's defense remains one of the most consistently elite anywhere in college football. They finished last season second in the SEC in scoring and total defense, while also boasting the best rush defense anywhere in the nation. A lot departed from this group over the off-season, but there's still little reason to expect much of a drop-off this fall.

The defensive line is in a great spot, with a nice blend of veteran experience with rapidly improving young talent. Steady veterans Devonte Wyatt, Jordan Davis, and Julian Rochester are all expected to play a heavy dosage of snaps again this fall. The trio won't put up huge numbers, but plays a key role in getting penetration for this pass rush, while supporting the elite rush defense. Sophomore defensive tackle Jalen Carter looks ready for a big year after making three tackles for loss a season ago. Those around the program seem to believe he's the most talented player on this defensive line, even in just his second year on campus.

Even as Azeez Ojulari and several other important pieces move on, Georgia's linebacker corps will be stout. Junior Nakobe Dean has already asserted himself as one of the best in the conference, and he's ready for an even larger role now that Ojulari and Monty Rice are gone. Dean led the team with 71 tackles in 2020 and plays a chaotic, hungry brand of football. He is joined by numerous other linebackers with experience, including Quay Walker, Rian Davis, and Channing Tindall. However, the most fascinating position to watch this fall will be the "Jack" spot vacated by Ojulari. Senior Adam Anderson spent some time there this spring, while junior Nolan Smith is a former massive recruit still waiting for his breakthrough. Youngster Mekhail Sherman is also expected to factor into the race, which should only add to the intrigue. 

The secondary is likely to be the greatest question mark on the defense. The Bulldogs spent much of the off-season lacking proven experience on the back-end beyond free safety Lewis Cine, who notched 52 tackles in 2020. However, they got great news late in the transfer market when they were able to snag a trio of former Power Five transplants: Brandon Turnage from Alabama, Tykee Smith from West Virginia, and Derion Kendrick from Clemson. Kendrick is the most important of the three, as he started 23 games over the last two seasons for the Tigers and is first-round NFL Draft possibility.

Kendrick will likely handle one cornerback spot, while a host of Bulldogs will vie for the other starting spot. Kelee Ringo was the top rated corner in the Class of 2020 but didn't play as a true freshman. Now healthy, he looks to have a serious shot at the job. His primary competition should be Jalen Kimber, who played three games last fall, and Turnage, who played in two games during his Crimson Tide career.

While the secondary is still somewhat of a concern, a stacked front seven should put Georgia in a good spot. They will also hope to be healthier this year after injuries crippled their chances against the two best offenses they faced in 2020, Florida and Alabama. If that's the case, there's no reason this unit can't once again be the best in the SEC.

Special Teams: Special teams should be a strength of this 2021 Georgia team, as both kicker Jake Podlesny and punter Jake Camarda return, as well as several weapons in the return game. Camarda in particular is a key returnee, as he was an All-American last season after posting a net average of 41.3 per punt. Kearis Jackson handled both punt and kick returns in 2020 and proved to be an occasional dangerous piece.

Bottom Line: Expectations are always high in Athens, but they were raised to an even greater level when the Bulldogs added Arik Gilbert and Derion Kendrick over the summer. Not only are the two dynamic pieces, but they arrive at positions of need for this roster: pass-catcher and corner. Add to that the return of their quarterback, J.T. Daniels, top tailback in Zamir White, and plenty of contributors from their front seven and the stakes are essentially raised to Playoff or bust (maybe even National Championship or bust). That doesn't mean that the path there will be a breeze; Georgia kicks off the season with a major showdown in Charlotte against Clemson and gets their annual rivalry with Florida in Jacksonville, with the Gators off on bye the week prior. Then there's the fact that Nick Saban and Alabama remain the hurdle Kirby Smart and staff have been unable to get by, with the possibility of a rematch in the SEC Championship Game remaining. No matter what, Georgia has proven they are one of the true elites in the college football world, even if they are yet to claim the elusive National Title they have come so close to in recent years. I predict a perfect regular season for the Bulldogs, meaning that no matter what happens in the SEC Championship, they have a great shot to make the four-team field.

Further Breakdown
Team Projections
Projected Record: 12-1 (8-1 SEC, Lose SEC Championship Game)
Offensive MVP: QB J.T. Daniels
Defensive MVP: LB Nakobe Dean
Breakout Player of the Year: CB Kelee Ringo
Impact Freshman: TE Brock Bowers

Recruiting Breakdown
After landing the top class in all of the land back in 2020, UGA slid down slightly in this cycle, finishing at fourth overall. They loaded up with intriguing talent at just about every position group, including skill positions, the offensive line, and the front seven. The top two players in the class are both from the state of Georgia in offensive linemen Amarius Mims and quarterback Brock Vandagriff. Mims is already 6'7", 315 pounds and could realistically contribute right away, while Vandagriff will likely have to wait his turn. On the defensive side, several linebackers and defensive backs may make an immediate impact. Smael London and Xavian Sorey were big pickups from the staff and fit this defense as rangy, quick defenders with fabulous natural instincts. On the back-end, defensive backs David Daniel and Nyland Green will look for snaps. Daniel can play multiple positions but is most natural at strong safety, while Green looks to enter the cornerback rotation right away.

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