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College Football Preview 2022: 5. Georgia Bulldogs

Stetson Bennett, Georgia

5. Georgia Bulldogs

Even with heavy defensive losses, the reigning National Champions will be firmly in the mix to repeat

2021 Review
Entering the 2021 campaign, Georgia's goal was the same it had been for most of the last four decades: win an elusive National Title. Despite fielding great teams over the years, the Bulldogs hadn't hoisted one since the 1980 season, and had just two claimed overall. Things got off to a strong start, as the defense shut down Clemson to open the year, helping Georgia escape with a 10-3 victory. The season-opening win allowed the Bulldogs to ascend near the top of the national polls, a position they would hold essentially the entire way. They dominated their competition en route to a 12-0 regular season, setting up a matchup with Alabama in the SEC Championship Game. Once again, the Tide proved to be Kirby Smart's kryptonite, as they smashed the Bulldogs, assuring the SEC would put multiple teams in the four-team CFB Playoff field. The Bulldogs wanted another shot, and after crushing Michigan in the Playoff semis, they got just that. Tasked with shutting down the Heisman winner and taking down the sport's Goliath, Georgia responded. After falling down at halftime, they outscored the Crimson Tide 27-9 in the second half and an interception by corner Kelee Ringo sealed the National Title. After finally reaching the mountaintop, defeating the program that had caused them such troubles over the years, now comes arguably the harder part: the encore. 

2022 Outlook
Offense: Georgia entered 2021 expecting former USC transfer J.T. Daniels to be leading an explosive offense that featured a more effective downfield passing attack. Instead, it was former JUCO transfer Stetson Bennett leading the way, as "The Mailman" started 12 games and finished with 2,862 yards and 29 touchdowns.

After leading the Bulldogs to the National Championship, many expected Bennett to ride off into the sunset and call it a career. Instead, he decided to run it back for a final year, hoping to strengthen an impressive resume. He enters 2022 as the unquestioned starter, but there's little denying how much talent is behind him on the depth chart, even with Daniels transferring. I wouldn't be shocked if UGA fans are calling for redshirt freshmen Carson Beck or Brock Vandagriff at the first signs of trouble.

The Bulldogs will still run an offense predicated around pounding the football and there's always plenty of talent in the backfield. Zamir White and James Cook may both be off to the NFL, but sophomore Kendall Milton is ready to become the next great UGA tailback. He tallied 264 yards in limited action a season ago, but should be the feature guy now. Junior Kenny McIntosh has also patiently waited his turn, while true freshman Branson Robinson will also factor in. Although there's less experience here than in 2021, it should be just as productive.

The receiver corps loses two big names, Jermaine Burton and George Pickens, but has a chance to be better this fall. Burton transferred to Alabama, while Pickens is off to the NFL after missing most of last season with a torn ACL. Sophomore Ladd McConkey came out of nowhere to total 447 receiving yards and will be heavily featured, but the 'Dawgs are hoping for more from a supporting cast that includes Kearis Jackson, Adonai Mitchell, Arian Smith, and Dominik Blaylock. Jackson was a bit of a disappointment in 2021 but has proven his worth, while Blaylock is healthy again after missing most of the last two seasons due to injury.

Hyperbole runs rampant during the offseason, but there's no over-exaggeration here; this may be the most talented tight end room in the history of college football. Brock Bowers came on in 2021 and grew into one of the sport's best as a true freshman, leading the team in every receiving category. He's back and should be a John Mackey frontrunner, but don't count out either Darnell Washington or Arik Gilbert. Washington's a load for defenses to handle, a 6'7", 265-pounder with soft hands, while Gilbert is among the greatest mysteries in college football. He was one of the highest-rated tight end recruits in the sport's history and flashed aplenty in 2020 with LSU, but never saw the field a year ago. If he's as good as advertised, UGA has multiple All-American candidates at the position. 

The offensive line should be strong once again, even as Jamaree Salyer and Justin Shaffer move on. Three starters are returning, and the two spots that need to be filled have capable pieces ready to step in. Sophomore Broderick Jones started four games and appeared in all 15, and is ready to take over at left tackle, while Xavier Truss handles left guard.

Georgia's defense rightfully garnered most of the attention a year ago, but the offense averaged over 40 PPG during an unconventional season. They're loaded with talent on this side of the ball and even though Bennett has his detractors, he's proven he can run the show. I firmly expect this to be among the best in the SEC and a Top 15-20 group nationally.

Defense: We've seen past defenses put up better numbers than 2021 Georgia, but I'm not sure we will ever see a group like it ever again in modern college football. In a world of spread offenses, the 'Dawgs allowed just 8.8 points per game and sent nine players to the NFL, with four drafted in the first round. 

Naturally, the defense was hit hard by losses over the offseason. It wasn't just the nine players going pro, but the coaching staff too, as coordinator Dan Lanning took the Oregon head coaching position. Even so, the defense remains loaded with talent and is sure to be stingy once again.

Even though Georgia had three defensive linemen drafted in the first round, the most talented from the 2021 group may still be on the roster. Sophomore Jalen Carter made just one start a season ago and still earned All-SEC honors, after recording three sacks and 5.5 TFL. As the unquestioned starter at nose tackle this year, he'll set the tone for the entire front seven before he's likely to be a Top 10 NFL Draft selection next spring. 

Along with Carter, UGA is hoping some other unproven faces can step up. Junior Tramel Walthour has an inside edge to be the starting defensive end, while sophomore Warren Brinson is likely to pair with Carter on the inside. True freshman Bear Alexander is also likely to feature into the rotation, as the 325-pounder is reminiscent of Jordan Davis when he first arrived in Athens.

Kirby Smart and the entire defensive staff got quite the surprise when outside linebacker Nolan Smith decided not to go pro, instead returning for a final season. Smith was often overshadowed by all the other talent in the front seven, but he should shine through in 2022. Don't be surprised if the junior is a favorite for the Butkus Award as the nation's top 'backer. He will play a particularly large role with the lack of experience elsewhere in the linebacker corps.

If you're looking for a breakout star on this defense, there's plenty of options, namely Jamon Dumas-Johnson, Smael Mondon, and Trezmen Marshall. Dumas-Johnson and Mondon were awfully impressive as true freshmen despite being buried on the depth chart, while Marshall is the "veteran" of the unit as a junior. Senior Robert Beal is also back at linebacker; he likely won't start, but will reprise his role as pure pass rusher, after totaling 6.5 sacks a year ago.

Entering last season, secondary was probably the largest question mark on Georgia's roster. A year later, it's likely to be one of their greatest strengths. The hero of the National Championship, Kelee Ringo, returns as the No. 1 corner, along with plenty of other familiar faces.

The corner spot opposite of Ringo is a relative question mark, but there are a host of candidates ready to step in. Sophomore Kamari Lassiter, redshirt frosh Nyland Green, and true freshman Daylen Everette are considered the favorites to take over, but the 'Dawgs may choose to mix and match. Everette was in for spring and flashed plenty of upside, so he may have the momentum heading into the regular season.

Ringo may have been the hero last year, but Christopher Smith's pick-six to help beat Clemson set the tone for the entire season. He's back and ready to handle strong safety duties, while UGA is hopeful a healthy Tykee Smith can take over for Lewis Cine at free safety. Tykee was a major acquisition last offseason but ended up playing just one game. He made 17 starts at West Virginia before coming to Athens and should be a prime breakout candidate.

There's always a learning curve when you lose so much on one side of the ball, but the quartet of Carter, Nolan Smith, Ringo, and Christopher Smith gives Georgia a proven core, and they can fill in around it with four and five-stars. It's going to be difficult to reach the heights of 2021, but this is still going to be one of the best in the country.

Special Teams: Special teams will be a strength, as kicker Jack Podlesny returns to spearhead the unit. He hit 22 of 27 field goals in 2021, including 5 of 8 from 40-49 yards. Punter Jame Camarda is gone, but the return game will provide a spark, with Kearis Jackson and Kenny McIntosh likely to split up duties.

Bottom Line: Georgia reached the pinnacle in 2021, but I don't envision any National Title hangover this fall. Smart has developed an absolute machine in Athens and they're simply too talented to take much of a step-back. The offense may actually be better with some of the pieces at the skill positions and defensively, the program has proven time and time again what they can do. The schedule sets up favorably, as well. Oregon to begin the year in Atlanta is probably an easier draw than Clemson, and the road tilts are tricky, but not terrible (South Carolina, Missouri, Mississippi State, and Kentucky). I think Alabama is the safer pick to take the SEC, but the gap between the two is clearly incredibly small and if the defense can acclimate quickly, the 'Dawgs have a very good shot to return to the CFB Playoff and defend their National Title.

Program Profile
Coaching Staff
Kirby Smart begins his seventh year as the man in charge of Georgia football. He joins Vince Dooley and Wally Butts as the only coaches in Georgia's storied history with National Titles on their resume. On offense, coordinator Todd Monken enters Year Three running the Bulldog offense. He's flipped between the NFL and college regularly throughout his coaching career, including a stint as Southern Miss head coach from 2013-2015. With Dan Lanning off to Oregon, Glen Schumann and Will Muschamp will operate as co-defensive coordinators. Schumann was Smart's first coaching hire after arriving at Georgia and will be in line for an even larger role soon enough, while Muschamp was head man at both Florida and South Carolina before joining the staff. His stock is at an all-time low right now, but there's no denying Muschamp's defensive coaching chops.

Recruiting Breakdown
Surprise, surprise, Georgia finished the 2022 cycle with a top class nationally. They landed at No. 3 in the 247Sports Composite, coming in just behind Texas A&M and Alabama. There are five five-star prospects set to join the roster, with defensive linemen Mykel Williams considered the gem of the Class. Williams has a decent shot to see immediate snaps with how inexperienced the Georgia D-Line will be, as does newcomers Bear Alexander and Marvin Jones Jr. The son of former Florida State great Marvin Jones (not the current NFL receiver), Jones Jr. has the pedigree and skillset to be a force at the collegiate level. On offense, there's likely not as many immediate contributors, with tight end Oscar Delp and QB Gunner Stockton likely heading for redshirts. Stockton was once committed to Will Muschamp at South Carolina and will join up with his once future coach, but he's joining a deep QB room.

2022 X-Factor: Arik Gilbert, TE
This may be a rather loose definition of an "X-factor" considering that Georgia will be tough to beat no matter what happens with Arik Gilbert this year, but if they're able to unlock his full potential? It would be an absolute terror for opposing defenses. Gilbert was one of the most hyped tight ends recruits in the sport's history when he made a surprising commitment to LSU. After impressing during his lone season there, he entered the transfer portal and was briefly committed to Florida before switching over to Georgia. He looked ready to play a significant role in the Bulldog offense a year ago, but never took a snap. Since then, he's wowed coaches and onlookers during the spring and appears ready to show what he can do. He'll have to compete for targets at a loaded tight end position, but he's talented and versatile enough to play more of a hybrid wide receiver/tight end role. I'm very intrigued to see what he can do and curious how Todd Monken and company use him this year.

Five-Year Trend

2022 Projections
Projected Record: 11-2 (7-1 SEC, Lose SEC Championship Game)
Offensive MVP: RB Kendall Milton
Defensive MVP: LB Nolan Smith
Breakout Player of the Year: LB Jamon Dumas-Johnson
Impact Freshman: DE Mykel Williams

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