The final play notwithstanding, the 2017 season was a tremendous success for the Georgia Bulldogs, who will look to keep things rolling in the opener against FCS member Austin Peay. In his second year at his alma mater, head coach Kirby Smart guided the Dawgs to their first SEC title in over a decade. Even better, Georgia played a bowl game with the national championship on the line for the first time in at least a generation. Expectations are sky high for 2018 and beyond in Athens, and many fans and analysts across the country believe Smart is building the Georgia football program into a carbon copy of the Alabama dynasty he helped construct across the state line.
But first things first. Georgia lost a great deal of talent, experience and production from its 2017 squad. Among the standouts Smart must replace are running backs Nick Chubb and Sony Michel, offensive lineman Isaiah Wynn, and All-American and Butkus Award-winning linebacker Roquan Smith. Fortunately for those in red and black, the Dawgs will be able to break in new starters slowly Saturday against the seemingly overmatched Governors before turning their attention to the SEC opener at South Carolina in Week 2.
Austin Peay at Georgia
Kickoff: Saturday Sept. 1 at 3:30 p.m. ET
Three Things to Watch
1. Sophomore signal-callers
Both Georgia and Austin Peay welcome back sophomore starters at quarterback. Georgia's Jake Fromm returns following a Freshman All-American performance in which he completed 62.2 percent of his passes for 2,615 yards and 24 touchdowns with seven interceptions. Fromm was eased in slowly after taking over for Jacob Eason, and he and the Georgia coaching staff relied heavily the ground game to move the chains.
But with 14 starts under his belt, we can expect Fromm to become more of a driving force for the offense in 2018. And with veteran receivers like Terry Godwin, Mecole Hardman and Riley Ridley ready for a bigger role, Fromm could put up big passing numbers.
Austin Peay's Jeremiah Oatsvall earned Ohio Valley Conference Freshman of the Year honors in 2017. Oatsvall threw for 1,148 yards with seven touchdowns and four interceptions and ran for 453 yards with six TDs in 12 games, including five starts. After such a strong freshman campaign, Oatsvall enters 2018 with high expectations: he was named Preseason OVC Offensive Player of the Year by the league’s media.
2. Georgia RB D'Andre Swift
Georgia must replace six starters on defense, including an all-timer at linebacker, but more attention will be paid to how the Bulldogs replace Chubb and Michel at running back. As the record-breaking duo prepares for their pro careers, 2017 third-stringer D’Andre Swift is set to step up as the primary ball carrier for the Dawgs.
Swift signed with Georgia as a five-star prospect out of Philadelphia and proved talented enough to work his way into a crowded running back rotation as a true freshman. The 5-foot-9, 215-pound sophomore ran for 631 yards and three touchdowns, averaging an explosive 7.6 yards per carry. Swift’s big-play ability was on display on the big stage last season when he broke loose for a 64-yard nail-in-the-coffin TD run in the 28-7 SEC Championship Game victory over Auburn.
Swift could put up big numbers as a starter in 2018. Some even see him as a dark horse Heisman Trophy candidate.
3. Governors on the ballot
Like Smart at Georgia, Austin Peay head coach Will Healy has made significant progress in his first two seasons at the helm. After surviving a 27-game losing streak, including an 0-11 mark in Healy’s first season as head coach, the Governors responded with an 8-4 record last season. The turnaround included a 7-1 mark in conference play and an 8-1 record against FCS opposition. As a display of that progress, Austin Peay enters the season ranked in the FCS Top 25 for the first time in school history.
Oatsvall should keep Austin Peay potent offensively in 2018, but the Governors could be even better on defense. The unit features a pair of All-America candidates in defensive end Jaison Williams, who led the OVC with 9.5 sacks and set a school record with four forced fumbles in 2017, and linebacker Gunnar Scholato, who has led the team in tackles in each of the last two years, including 99 total stops and 12 tackles for a loss last season.
Given the talent Healy has cultivated and the confidence the Governors gained last season, the goal for Austin Peay in 2018 should be to make its first FCS playoff appearance.
Austin Peay has come a long way in a short time, and the Governors played three FBS opponents (including undefeated UCF) respectably in 2017. Nevertheless, Georgia is one of the best teams in the country and a legitimate national title contender. Simply put, the Bulldogs are bigger, stronger and faster across the board. Though Kirby Smart and his coaching staff will likely attempt to keep their cards close to their vests with a trip to South Carolina on the horizon, Georgia should have no trouble picking up a season-opening victory.
Prediction: Georgia 45, Austin Peay 7
— Written by Nicholas Ian Allen, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Follow him on Twitter @NicholasIAllen.