Notre Dame’s season will get an early litmus test when the Irish host Georgia. Undoubtedly, plenty of commenters here will rush to say Notre Dame does not stand a chance against the Bulldogs’ rushing attack, and while that ground game does warrant a heap of respect, implying Georgia will cruise through South Bend on Sept. 9 is too simple of a summary.
The Bulldogs went 8-5 last year, including 4-4 in the SEC. In nearly every respect, it was a disappointing debut season for head coach Kirby Smart given the expectations for what was supposedly a team ready to break through. Even that .500 conference record paints a prettier picture than the reality, as Georgia was outscored by 25 points in conference play.
The Bulldogs started 3-0, but that record was built on a house of cards. They needed to come from behind in the second half to win each of those games, including squeezing by Football Championship Subdivision-team Nicholls State 26-24.
Ole Miss handed Georgia its first loss in the form of a 45-14 walloping, leading 31-0 at halftime. There would be no second-half rally, to say the least. The defeat started a five-game stretch in which the Bulldogs fell four times, including a 17-16 loss at home against Vanderbilt. No matter how well Derek Mason may be doing with a slow Commodores rebuild, that was a bad look for Smart.
Few teams could have two prospective NFL starting running backs and a highly-touted quarterback, yet manage only 24.5 points per game.
WHAT GEORGIA LOST
Remember discussing Temple and its three NFL Draft picks? That was three times as many as Georgia managed last season, that lone honoree being receiver Isaiah McKenzie in the fifth round. He totaled 633 yards and seven touchdowns last year, as well as a punt return for a touchdown.
More notably, the Bulldogs saw 60 percent of their offensive line graduate, and the remaining 40 percent does not make up one side of the line to create a reliable half of the field. (Think of Notre Dame’s offensive line and its trust in its left side with fifth-year senior left tackle Mike McGlinchey and senior left guard Quenton Nelson.)
Rather, Georgia is looking to replace both its offensive tackles as well as its center.
WHAT GEORGIA GAINED
Speaking of replacing offensive linemen, Georgia’s top 2017 recruit could fit the bill. Isaiah Wilson, all 6-foot-7 and 350 pounds of him, has reportedly seen some first-team action in preseason practice. He was the centerpiece of the No. 3 recruiting class in the country, per rivals.com. That rating was boosted by sheer numbers: Of the Bulldogs’ 26 signees, two were five-stars and 14 ranked as four-stars. Yes, that 26 figure exceeds the NCAA maximum, but that mandate kicks in only upon enrollment.
Receiver Mark Webb was among those four-stars and could quickly find himself playing time amid a deep but unproven receiver corps. (Sound familiar, Irish fans?)
Kirby Smart enters his second season away from Nick Saban’s watchful eye with one primary goal: Meet Saban in December. The former Alabama defensive coordinator will need to get past Florida to reach the SEC Championship game.
The encounter against Notre Dame could serve a genuine role in that task: Aside from last year’s loss in the World’s Largest Outdoor Cocktail Party, the Sept. 9 contest will be the truest test yet of Smart’s head-coaching tenure, partly due to it being on the road as it is. Suffice it to say, Georgia rarely travels north, let alone within range of the Great Lakes’ winds. Obviously, the weather should not matter in early September, but it is not absurd to think the time in flight could alter some routines.
As will be discussed below in the “Season Outlook,” the Bulldogs will need to win on the road this season if they have hopes of reclaiming some SEC glory. Notching an away victory in the season’s second week could lay a foundation for that pursuit.
The entire week leading into Georgia facing the Irish, expect to hear repeated mentions of senior running backs Nick Chubb and Sony Michel (pronounced like Michelle). It is hard to overstate how good each is. To have both defies typical collegiate comprehension.
Yet, the Bulldogs attack will go beyond the rushing game. Sophomore quarterback Jacob Eason has arm strength to rival Notre Dame junior quarterback Brandon Wimbush’s, and Eason will have a number of receivers to target, ones he is certainly more familiar with than he was as a freshman.
Georgia returns its top-five tacklers. Eh, maybe that is not as impressive as it first seems.
Georgia returns 14 of its top-15 tacklers, losing only No. 6 in that count, cornerback Maurice Smith and his 50 takedowns.
With 10 returning starters, including its entire front-seven, having now spent an additional year learning Smart’s 3-4 system, this should be a dominant defense led by linebackers Davin Bellamy and Lorezno Carter. The duo combined for 10 sacks and 30 quarterback hurries last year. No matter how generously that latter statistic is tracked, Bellamy’s 17 hurries is a number to notice.
Vegas pegs Georgia’s win total over/under at 8.5. Despite the heralded running duo and threatening defense, that number is quite well-placed. Given their struggles a year ago, putting too much faith in the Bulldogs may be a reach. In order to best that win total, they would need to not slip up in any game likely favored in (such as at Vanderbilt), as well as win at least two of five games away from home at Notre Dame, at Tennessee, at a neutral site vs. Florida, at Auburn and at Georgia Tech.
The SEC East will presumably come down to Georgia and Florida again. Speaking of the Gators, do not be surprised to see semi-frequent Florida updates in this space this fall. The Malik Zaire experiment’s intrigue increases with each update from Gainesville.
Tomorrow: Boston College
Thursday: Michigan State
Friday: Miami (OH)
Saturday: North Carolina
Sunday: Bye Week
Monday, the 21st: USC
Tuesday, 22nd: North Carolina State
Wednesday, 23rd: Wake Forest
Thursday, 24th: Miami (FL)
Friday, 25th: Navy
Saturday, 26th: Stanford (The same day as Stanford’s opener vs. Rice in Australia.)
Sunday, 27th: Enjoy the sun once more before the season commences in earnest.