Can Georgia Find its Way Back to the National Championship Game in 2018?

Bulldogs could be back with a vengeance in 2018

The Georgia Bulldogs waited 37 long years to have their shot at another football national championship. Unfortunately, it wasn’t meant to be, as they could not survive a dramatic fourth-quarter comeback by Alabama in Monday night’s College Football Playoff Playoff National Championship. The heartbreaking 26-23 overtime loss to the Crimson Tide will forever leave a bad taste in the mouths of Bulldog fans. But it shouldn’t diminish an otherwise remarkable season.

 

Kirby Smart led Georgia to a record-tying 13-win season and an SEC championship in just his second year as head coach. And despite the unsavory conclusion, the Bulldogs made quite the statement in their return to college football’s upper-echelon. Perhaps more importantly, the SEC may have finally found a worthy adversary to compete for conference supremacy with the Crimson Tide, who have gone largely unchallenged during the Nick Saban era.

 

The Bulldogs are already destined to end Alabama’s seven-year reign atop the national recruiting rankings with the No. 1 signing class for 2018. A class that so far includes six players ranked as five-stars and nine of the nation’s top 50 high school prospects, according to 247Sports. The future looks bright indeed for a Georgia team poised and well-positioned to become a force to be reckoned with for years to come.

 

As for the immediate future, the Bulldogs rank No. 4 in Athlon Sports' Way-Too-Early Top 25 for 2018. Kirby Smart will have some big shoes to fill on both sides of the football next season. However, a reloaded roster should provide Georgia with more than enough firepower to make yet another run at a national title.

 

Offense

 

Key Returnees:

QB Jake Fromm

QB Jacob Eason (could transfer)

RB D’Andre Swift

WR Terry Godwin

WR Mecole Hardman

WR Riley Ridley

TE Isaac Nauta

OT Andrew Thomas

OG Ben Cleveland

OG Kendall Baker

OG Solomon Kindley

C Lamont Gaillard

 

Key Departures:

RB Nick Chubb

RB Sony Michel

WR Javon Wims

OT Isaiah Wynn

 

Defense

 

Key Returnees:

DT Trenton Thompson (could declare for NFL draft)

DT Tyler Clark

DT Julian Rochester

DE Jonathan Ledbetter

DE David Marshall

LB Roquan Smith (likely to declare for draft)

LB Natrez Patrick

LB D’Andre Walker

DB Deandre Baker (may declare for draft)

DB Tyrique McGhee

DB J.R. Reed

DB Richard LeCounte III

 

Key Departures:

DT John Atkins

LB Lorenzo Carter

LB Davin Bellamy

LB Reggie Carter

DB Malkom Parrish

DB Dominick Sanders

DB Aaron Davis

 

Special Teams

 

Key Returnees:

K Rodrigo Blankenship

KR/PR Mecole Hardman

KR Elijah Holyfield

 

Key Departure:

P Cameron Nizialek

 

Three Offseason Storylines to Watch

 

1. New-look backfield

It may seem like an impossible task to replace Nick Chubb and Sony Michel, the greatest running back tandem in the history of college football. But the Bulldogs appear to be well-equipped for a relatively seamless transition to the next wave of stars in a long line of elite Georgia running backs.

 

D’Andre Swift has already begun his legacy as the next great Georgia running back. Alongside Chubb and Michel, Swift played a key role in the Bulldogs’ success in the ground game in 2017, racking up 771 yards from scrimmage and four touchdowns during a strong freshman campaign.

 

The Bulldogs also return talented junior running backs Elijah Holyfield and Brian Herrien. And the rich get even richer with the nation's No. 1- and No. 3-ranked running backs for the class of 2018 in Zamir White and James Cook soon to join the fold. The Georgia rushing attack should be as potent as ever in 2018. Four starters also return along the offensive line to help that cause.

 

2. Quarterback controversy?

Jake Fromm put forth a great effort in his freshman season, leading the Bulldogs to the national championship game and an SEC title. That will certainly give him a leg up in his bid to return as the starting quarterback in 2018. However, it isn’t necessarily set in stone. It will be Fromm’s job to lose, but we may not have heard the last of former starter Jacob Eason. If the talented junior-to-be elects not to transfer prior to spring practice, it’s probably because he has been promised an opportunity to win the starting job back from Fromm.

 

Even if Eason does choose to leave Athens for greener pastures, Fromm will still have to contend with yet another promising candidate in Justin Fields. The nation’s No. 2 overall prospect from the class of 2018 is already enrolled and could make a strong case of his own for the starting job this spring. Fields is as talented as they come and adds a dual-threat component to the QB position that neither Fromm or Eason possess.

 

Will Georgia stay the course with a proven winner in Fromm? Will the strong-armed Eason return to make a last-ditch bid? or Could Fields pull off the upset to become the third true freshman to start for Georgia in as many seasons? These are all plausible scenarios and things could get interesting.

 

3. Can the defense return to championship form in 2018?

If the Bulldogs are going to make a return trip to the College Football Playoff in 2018, they will have to fill some big shoes on defense. The good news is that the cupboard is far from bare in terms of returning talent. And there are plenty of re-enforcements on the way to Athens via the nation's top-ranked recruiting class. Which is exactly why the Georgia defense should once again rank among the nation’s best next season.

 

Trenton Thompson, Tyler Clark, Julian Rochester, Jonathan Ledbetter and David Marshall are all expected to return to anchor one of the best defensive fronts in all of college football for 2018.

 

The Bulldogs' secondary also looks to be in good hands in 2018, despite key losses in Malkom Parrish, Dominick Sanders and Aaron Davis. That is particularly true if cornerback Deandre Baker decides to return for his senior season. But a talented corps of defensive backs in Tyrique McGhee, J.R Reed, Richard LeCounte III and Deangelo Gibbs make for an outstanding cast next season regardless of Baker’s decision.

 

Georgia will take its biggest hit at linebacker. Most notably, junior All-American and leading tackler Roquan Smith, should he elect to forego his senior season for the NFL. The Bulldogs will sorely miss departing seniors Lorenzo Carter, Davin Bellamy and Reggie Carter as well. However, proven talents D'Andre Walker, Natrez Patrick and Juwan Taylor will go a long way in filling the void. Monty Rice and Walter Grant (amongst others) will compete for vacancies and provide additional depth following strong freshman campaigns.

 

— Written by Rob McVey, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Follow him on Twitter @Rob_UTVOLS.

Event Date: 
Tuesday, January 9, 2018 - 08:50

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