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College Football Preview 2023: 2. Georgia Bulldogs

Brock Bowers, Georgia

2. Georgia Bulldogs

With the best top-to-bottom roster in college football and a soft schedule, a three-peat is a real possibility

2022 Review
Georgia entered the 2022 season in uncharted territory, defending their first National Title in four decades. It quickly became clear the Bulldogs were going to be a problem once again, as they opened things up by dominating No. 11 Oregon 49-3 in a game that looked more like a Power Five-Group of Five clash than a Top 25 showdown. That dominance would show itself time and time again, as the Bulldogs raced out to a flawless regular season for the second straight season. Sure, there were the occasional lulls, such as underwhelming performances against Kent State and Missouri, but Georgia took care of business at every opportunity and blew out the vast majority of their competition. Not even the SEC Championship Game matchup with LSU could stand in their way this time, as they dropped 50 points and secured the top overall seed heading into the College Football Playoff. There, they did receive some heavy resistance in the semifinal, falling behind Ohio State and needing a thrilling comeback (plus a missed field goal) to play their way into the National Championship. It looked like it was the wake-up call Kirby Smart and Georgia needed, as they stepped onto the field a week later disciplined, motivated, and hungry for a second consecutive National Title. The result? A 65-7 humiliation of "Cinderella" TCU in one of the most dominant National Championship Game performances in college football's long history. It served as an important reminder that the Bulldogs are the sport's premier program and the team that every other FBS program is looking to take down. It also opened up the door for a three-peat in 2023, which hasn't happened in nearly a century. Lofty goals? Of course, but this program has developed into an absolute machine and just about anything seems possible as they prepare for this fall.

2023 Outlook
Offense: Two of the figureheads of Georgia's impressive back-to-back title runs moved on over the offseason, as offensive coordinator Todd Monken took the Baltimore Ravens OC job and quarterback Stetson Bennett graduated. Monken was replaced by Mike Bobo, an SEC veteran who was already on staff, while a three-man QB competition unfolded to take over for Bennett. Just this week, veteran Carson Beck was unsurprisingly named the starter, beating out sophomore Brock Vandagriff and redshirt freshman Gunner Stockton.

Beck is a rare story in the context of modern college football, a highly touted recruit who waited his turn behind multiple Georgia quarterbacks before getting his opportunity. Now, he has the chance to lead one of college football's rosters, stocked to the brim with skill position talent. Considering how impressive he was in back-up duty last season, completing 74% of his passes with a 4-0 TD-INT ratio, it feels likely he will ready for the big stage. In fact, Beck is my 2023 Heisman Trophy pick.

Beck is blessed with one of the top group of pass-catchers in the SEC, a group that was further bolstered by the offseason additions of Missouri transfer Dominic Lovett and Mississippi State transfer Rara Thomas. Both players led their respective teams in receiving a season ago and should bring additional explosiveness to a receiver room that also includes sophomore Arian Smith and juniors Ladd McConkey and Marcus Rosemy-Jacksaint. McConkey is one of my favorite players in college football; on a roster that looks more like an NFL team, he doesn't jump out at you at 6'0", 185 pounds, But, he's been ultra-productive throughout his time in Athens, including going for 58 receptions and 762 yards last fall.

As if the receivers weren't enough, Georgia also just so happens to boast the reigning Mackey Award winner, Brock Bowers. The junior is a tantalizing talent, a well-built tight end who can blow by defenders in the open field, or bully them as a blocker between the hashes. Joining him is sophomore Oscar Delp, who will see his role expand with the departure of Darnell Washington.

With leading rusher Kenny McIntosh also moving on to the pros, juniors Kendall Milton and Daijun Edwards will see their roles continue to expand. Edwards finished second on the team in rushing last fall, with 769 yards, while I still believe Milton can reach another level. He's been solid as a rotational piece his first three seasons on campus, but could be in store for a major breakthrough in his third season on campus.

Up front, the Bulldogs lose a pair of NFL Draft selections in Broderick Jones and Warren McLendon, but should remain one of the best in the country. Guards Tate Ratledge and Xavier Truss are punishing blockers who open up gapping holes in the ground game, while junior Amarius Mims looks ready to step into one of the tackle spots. That will most likely be on the right side, but left tackle remains a bit of a question without a clear favorite to step into the starting role.

Someday, Stetson Bennett's two-year run as Georgia quarterback will be turned into a Hollywood movie. But, that doesn't mean the Bulldog offense has to fall off a cliff with his departure. On the contrary, this unit could be even more lethal, with transfers strengthening the receiver room and capable pieces ready to fill in at key spots. Improving on last year's 41.6 points per game is very much in the cards, and expect several pieces on this offense to be in the mix for prestigious awards.

Defense: The 2021 Georgia defense was arguably the most dominant unit we've seen in college football history, so it was only natural last year's group was going to take a step-back. But, even that regression wasn't a major one, as the 'Dawgs held opponents to just 14.3 points per game and showed out in some of their most important contests. 2023 may even better, as nine starters are back and several players appear poised to step into larger roles after NFL departures.

On the defensive line, Jalen Carter made the expected jump to the pros, but just about every other important piece is back in Athens. Junior nose tackle Nazir Stackhouse sets the tone in the middle, a forceful veteran who is much more athletic than his 320-pound frame may suggest. He's joined by a budding star in defensive end Mykel Williams, while junior Zion Logue appears ready to step into the spot vacated by Carter. Add in Tramel Walthour, who started 13 games in 2022, and Warren Brinson, this is going to be a deep and relentless group all season long.

The Bulldogs continue to be one of college football's premier programs at producing high-quality linebacker talent and will feature one of the top defensive combos in the country in Smael Mondon and Jamon Dumas-Johnson. Not only did the two inside linebackers finish first and second on the team in tackles, they were constant pests in opposing backfields, combing for 12 tackles for loss and a staggering 49 quarterback hurries.

Outside linebacker is the spot to watch at linebacker, as Nolan Smith and Robert Beal both departed over the offseason. Smith turned down the NFL to come back for an additional year, but missed the final seven games of 2022, forcing Beal into a larger role than expected. Although Beal was solid, the Bulldogs could actually upgrade with junior Chaz Chambliss and sophomore Marvin Jones Jr. Jones is a guy I'm particularly high on, making my annual, "Ten Players Poised for the Big Sophomore Leap." He's bulked up over the offseason and receiving plenty of positive reviews, it feels like only a matter of time before he makes his presence felt on this defense.

While the front seven is undoubtedly going to be stout, the pass defense has the most questions on the defense. Safety Christopher Smith and corner Kelee Ringo were crucial components of the defense the last several seasons and both took their talents to the NFL, Smith doing so after earning All-American accolades. With that being said, Georgia continues to recruit and develop this position at an impressive rate, and has one of the sport's rising stars in safety Malaki Starks.

Starks first broke onto the scene with a ridiculous interception in the season-opening blowout of Oregon and continued to get better each and every week, finishing with 68 tackles and seven pass deflections as a true freshman. He's going to make play a critical role at free safety, while junior Javon Bullard appears ready to man strong safety after starting ten games a season ago. At the "Star" position, Georgia is hopeful this is the year Tykee Smith finally puts it together over a full season. The former West Virginia transfer was considered a big get at the time, but has dealt with injuries throughout his time with the 'Dawgs. 

Cornerback Kamari Lassiter made major strides throughout 2022 and will take over as the top player at the position with Ringo gone. Developing more consistency will be the next step, but the junior has both the physical gifts and now the experience to be a difference-maker. It's likely that sophomore Daylen Everette will line up opposite of him after playing in 14 games as a true freshman, but Nyland Green is also expected to play a role. Expected to be an instant contributor to the secondary back in 2021, Green has had two quiet years on campus, but brings size and versatility to the position.

Georgia's defense has become an absolute machine under Kirby Smart, sending a collection of players to the NFL each and every year and simply replacing them with premium, all-world talent. Although a few big names depart, this unit is going to be scary once again and has several pieces on the cusp of superstardom, namely Starks, Williams, and Lassiter. 

Special Teams: It's a mixed bag for Georgia on special teams. On one hand, the Bulldogs lose a reliable kicker in Jack Podlesny, who hit 26 of 31 attempts last fall. On the other, punter Brett Thorson was a revelation as a true freshman last fall and is back, while Ladd McConkey adds some bite to the return game. Kicker will still be an interesting watch, as sophomore Jared Zirkel is hoping to grow from being just a kickoff specialist and ward off newcomer Peyton Woodring for the starting job.

Bottom Line
It always felt like it was only a matter of time before Kirby Smart really got things rolling at his alma mater and two National Titles later, it's pretty safe to say the Bulldogs have arrived. They've become a model program not just in their ability to bring in blue-chip prospects at a dizzying rate, but fit them into the right spots and develop them into NFL Draft picks. It doesn't appear like Georgia is going to slow down at any point soon, either. In fact, 2023 sets up perfectly for the 'Dawgs. They play arguably their easiest schedule of the Smart era, face down an SEC East without a reliable contender beyond Tennessee, and look over a national landscape where several other top-tier contenders are breaking in new quarterbacks. It would not only be a shock, but a major disappointment, if the Bulldogs are not in the College Football Playoff, and as of now they remain the smart pick to hoist the 2023 National Title. I'm not picking them solely because a three-peat is just so difficult but for a team that has won 29 of their 30 games the last two years, just about anything appears to be in the realm of possibility.

Program Profile
Coaching Staff
Kirby Smart enters Year Eight in charge at his alma mater, looking to become the first college coach since Bernie Bierman at Minnesota in the mid-1930s to secure three consecutive National Titles. He will do so with a new offensive coordinator, albeit a familiar face in Mike Bobo. Bobo, who played with Smart at Georgia in the 1990s, is now on his third coaching stint in Athens. He served as an offensive analyst last fall, but made the expected jump to OC following Todd Monken's decision to head to the NFL. On defense, co-coordinators Glen Schumann and Will Muschamp were tremendous in their respective positions in 2022 and will are back again. Schumann, who followed Smart from Alabama, served as the team's ILB coach before the promotion to co-DC and should be a name to watch as a head coaching candidate in the future. Muschamp, for all his struggles as head coach at both Florida and South Carolina, remains an elite defensive mind. He served under two of the best to ever do it in Nick Saban and Mack Brown and is also very familiar with the program, playing safety here from 1991-1994.

Recruiting Breakdown
Georgia remains a force to be reckoned with on the recruiting trail, coming in just behind Alabama with the No. 2 group in the Class of 2023. There are five players with five-star billing, including elite defenders like linemen Jordan Hall, linebacker Raylen Wilson, and corner A.J. Harris. All three have measurables that project extremely well to the next level and should develop rapidly, although they may have to wait their turns. The exception could be Harris, a route-jumping defender who comes in at a cornerback spot where depth could be a concern. Another name to watch defensively is edge Samuel M'Pemba, who Georgia locked down over a host of Southeast powers. The 6'3", 245-pounder probably plays outside linebacker at the collegiate level, but he has a skillset that could be used just about anywhere. He even played slot receiver during his high school career and is exceptionally quick for his size. On the offensive side of this class, look for tackles Monroe Fleering and Bo Hughley to be long-term building blocks for this line in the long-term. Freeling could even be in the mix for snaps right away at left tackle and has the looks of a seasoned college veteran.

2023 Schedule Analysis
As if there weren't already enough reasons to buy into Georgia for 2023, they face down what may be the easiest schedule in college football. Their four non-conference games are going to be treated more as warm-up or preseason games than true tests, with UT-Martin, Ball State, and UAB at home, and Georgia Tech on the road. In SEC play, things kick off with South Carolina at Sanford Stadium, and the 'Dawgs also get Auburn on the road, Kentucky at home, and Vanderbilt on the road before the bye. That bye kicks off a second half that does include a road tilt with Tennessee, but is very easy beyond that. The Florida game is in its usual neutral site location of Jacksonville, but the 'Dawgs have won five of six in the rivalry game and the Gators don't exactly inspire confidence heading into the fall. What's truly amazing about the schedule isn't just the soft non-conference but the fact that just about every potential land-mine is at home, with the notable exception being Tennessee. South Carolina, Kentucky, or Ole Miss could all be at least interesting if they got Georgia at the right time on the road. Instead, they'll all have to travel to Sanford Stadium and face college football's Goliath, a team that should be favored comfortably in all 12 of their regular season games.

2023 X-Factor: Kendall Milton, RB
For as successful as Georgia has been the last two seasons, they've done so without a true star back leading the way. The ground game has still been extremely productive but has instead leaned on a committee approach, a change-of-pace for a program that has produced names like Todd Gurley, Nick Chubb, Sony Michel, and D'Andre Swift over the last decade. Heading into 2023, Georgia is still likely to deploy a balanced approach, but I am curious to see whether this is finally the year junior Kendall Milton takes charge of the backfield. Milton was, unsurprisingly, a big-name recruit coming out of high school who looked like the next big thing but has instead split carries with Kenny McIntosh and Daijun Edwards. He's still been productive, including rushing for 592 yards and eight touchdowns a season ago, but I'm still under the impression there's another gear he can hit this fall. If that's the case and Milton finally gets it together in his fourth year on campus, this Georgia offense is downright terrifying. Even if he doesn't, I still suspect Milton to play an outsized role, at least early on, as the Bulldogs break in Carson Beck at quarterback.

Team Projections
Projected Record: 12-1 (8-0 SEC, Lose SEC Championship Game)
Offensive MVP: QB Carson Beck
Defensive MVP: S Malaki Starks
Impact Freshman: CB A.J. Harris
Impact Transfer: WR Dominic Lovett
Breakout Player of the Year: DE Mykel Williams

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