In one of the more intriguing week 1 games, the No. 15 Georgia Bulldogs will play host to the Appalachian State Mountaineers in a primetime ESPN matchup between the hedges in Sanford Stadium. Following a less-than-stellar 8-5 campaign in 2016, Kirby Smart has some pretty lofty expectations to live up to heading into his second year as head coach of the Bulldogs. Georgia is the overwhelming favorite to win the SEC East in 2017, thanks in large part to the return of 17 starters, including 10 from a defense that ranked No. 16 nationally in 2016. Regardless, there are still question marks surrounding the program. And the Bulldogs sorely need to make a statement right out of the gate against an upset-minded Appalachian State team.
Like Georgia, Appalachian State returns plenty of firepower for 2017. And anyone thinking that fifth-year head coach Scott Satterfield's Mountaineers are just some run of the mill pushover from the Sun Belt is sorely mistaken. Just ask the Tennessee Volunteers or Michigan Wolverines. Appalachian State gave the 2016 preseason SEC East favorites all they could handle in Knoxville last season, coming up just short against the Vols in overtime. This year also marks the 10-year anniversary of the Mountaineers monumental upset of Michigan in Ann Arbor. The defending Sun Belt champions have a track record that proves that they are a team that the Bulldogs cannot afford to take lightly.
Appalachian State at Georgia
Kickoff: Saturday, Sept. 2 at 6:15 p.m. ET
TV Channel: ESPN
Spread: Georgia -14.5
Three Things to Watch
1. Progression of Jacob Eason
All eyes will be on the Bulldogs' sophomore signal-caller Saturday night. His performance not only looms large for Georgia’s success in this matchup, but potentially for the season to come. Despite Eason’s lofty billing out of high school, the highly touted quarterback took his lumps in an up-and-down freshman campaign that saw him complete just 55 percent of his passes. He certainly had his shining moments, but for most Bulldog fans, those moments were too few and far between.
While reports of Eason’s progression have been favorable this offseason, it’s time for him to prove it on the big stage. But with serious question marks along the offensive line, coupled with an unproven group of wide receivers, that might be a tall order against a solid Mountaineer defense that will test Eason at every opportunity. The Appalachian State defense ranked No. 17 in the nation last season and returns most of its starters, including DE Tee Sims, who accounted for seven sacks in 2016, and ball hawk CB Clifton Duck, who hauled in five interceptions. As a side note, it will also be interesting to see if a go-to wide receiver emerges for Eason in this contest. Junior Terry Godwin appears to be the most likely candidate to step into that role.
2. Appalachian State offense
Defense will likely be the strength of the Mountaineers in 2017. However, there are plenty of proven playmakers on the offensive side of the football that Georgia can ill afford to sleep on. Fourth-year starting quarterback Taylor Lamb has produced 27 wins in 32 starts en route to 7,049 career passing yards and 63 touchdowns through the air. Lamb is also an ample runner, accounting for 1,425 rushing yards and 18 scores on the ground in his first three seasons under center. Junior running back and 2016 Sun Belt Offensive Player of the Year Jalin Moore rushed for more than 1,400 yards last season, leading the way for the 10th-best rushing attack in the nation. Wide receiver Shaedon Meadors returns for his senior season after leading App State in receptions (45) and receiving yards (716) in 2016. And anchoring their efforts will be an experienced offensive line that features three preseason all-conference selections.
The only problem is that the Appalachian State offense will be paired against a potentially elite Georgia defense that returns 10 very talented starters and plenty of depth. The Mountaineers struggled to put up points against the two Power 5 opponents they faced in 2016, averaging just 11.5 points in games against Tennessee and Miami. And while the App State offense should be better in 2017, it will be a serious challenge to put points on the scoreboard against what will be far and away the best defense the Mountaineers face all season.
3. Dynamic duo
Another huge focal point of Saturday night’s game will be Georgia’s ground game. Nick Chubb and Sony Michel make up arguably the most potent one-two punch at running back in all of college football. They also present a formidable challenge for the Appalachian State defense. While the Mountaineers have plenty of talent and speed in all three phases of their defense, they may lack the size and depth to consistently slow down these two elite running backs.
Even if the Georgia passing game somehow flounders and provides little assistance, Chubb and Michel are talented enough to carry the offense on their shoulders. And both backs are capable of putting up big numbers on the ground, particularly if the Mountaineer defense starts to wear down in the second half. However, they will need some help from the offensive line to provide adequate running lanes, something that was a struggle at times last season and remains a concern heading into 2017.
Appalachian State is no stranger to the big stage, and the atmosphere inside Sanford Stadium probably won’t be enough to intimidate the Mountaineers as they embark on their quest to return to the status of giant slayer. That said, I don’t see a another colossal upset in the cards on Saturday night. While the Mountaineers possess more than enough talent on both sides of the football to repeat as Sun Belt champions in 2017, they simply don't match up against the superior talent and depth of this particular SEC opponent.
Georgia has some question marks that need to be addressed, and Appalachian State is good enough to help answer some of those questions. The Mountaineers may even keep it interesting for a while. But at the end of the day, I’m not sure their defense can hold up for four quarters, and points will be very hard to come by against the Georgia defense.
Prediction: Georgia 31, Appalachian State 13
— Written by Rob McVey, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Follow him on Twitter @Rob_UTVOLS.