Elijah Holyfield needs just 44 yards to give Georgia a pair of 1,000-yard rushers for the second straight season
Despite a disappointing end to the SEC Championship Game, the 2018 regular season should be considered a successful one for the Georgia Bulldogs. Georgia won the SEC East for the second straight year and finished just minutes short of a second consecutive conference title and College Football Playoff berth.
Many fans and analysts across the country felt the close call in Atlanta actually proved the Bulldogs were worth of a playoff spot over Big 12 champion Oklahoma. Nevertheless, head coach Kirby Smart led the Dawgs to an 11-2 record and a date with Texas in the Sugar Bowl. A win over the Longhorns would be victory No. 25 over the last two seasons, which would set a new two-year record for the program. It would also give Georgia 12 or more wins in back-to-back seasons for the first time in its football history.
The dissatisfaction is fresh in the minds of the Bulldog Nation following the SEC title game loss, but finishing fifth in the final College Football Playoff rankings has helped to establish Georgia as one of the elite teams in college football. As for the players that helped contribute most to that success, and the defining moments along the way, we offer our 2018 Georgia football team awards:
Offensive MVP: Jake Fromm, QB
He doesn’t put up huge passing numbers, but Fromm is one of the most accurate and efficient quarterbacks in the nation. He led the SEC in completion percentage (68.4), which ranked eighth in the country. He finished the regular season third in the nation in passer rating (175.8), behind only Heisman Trophy finalists Kyler Murray and Tua Tagovailoa. Fromm also tied for second in the SEC with 27 touchdown passes and threw only five interceptions. Fromm has thrown for 2,537 yards in just 272 attempts, good for 9.3 yards per attempt, which ranks third in the SEC and sixth in the country. He's also continued to improve as the season progresses. He set a career high with four touchdown passes in the victory over Georgia Tech and followed that up with three TDs and a season-high 301 passing yards against Alabama.
Defensive MVP: D’Andre Walker, LB
Deandre Baker won the Thorpe Award, given to the best defensive back in the nation, but we decided to go in a slightly different direction: Georgia finished the regular season in an uncharacteristically low position among SEC defenses in terms of sacks. The Bulldogs recorded just 22 total sacks in 13 games, which tied for 11th in the conference. On a per game basis, the Dawgs recorded just 1.69 — a mere 0.02 more than last-place Vanderbilt. Despite the team’s struggles rushing the passer, Walker proved to be one of the best in the SEC at getting to the quarterback. He led the team and ranked seventh in the SEC with 7.5 sacks and he was at his most productive in the most important games of the season, recording sacks against South Carolina, Missouri, Tennessee, LSU, Georgia Tech and Alabama. The senior also has been credited with 45 total tackles, including 11 for a loss, along with four forced fumbles, three pass breakups and 10 QB hurries.
Best Freshman: Tyson Campbell, DB
Isaiah Wilson, Cade Mays and Trey Hill, who have combined to start 19 games on the offensive line, are all certainly worth mentioning. Nevertheless, the freshman that has made the most noticeable impact this season is Campbell. The true freshman has played in all 13 games and started 10. Campbell ranks eighth on the team with 43 total tackles, including 11 against LSU. He also has forced a fumble and returned another for a 64-yard touchdown against Missouri.
Best Play of the Season: The Pick-Six That Nearly Wasn’t
Way, way back in Week 2, Georgia travelled to Columbia to face a ranked South Carolina squad widely believed to be the top challenger to the Bulldogs in the SEC East. Despite an easy shutout win over FCS opponent Austin Peay the week before, there were still plenty of questions surrounding the young Georgia defense. But when DeAndre Baker picked off a tipped pass from Jake Bentley, and returned it 56 yards to the goal line, it eased some concerns. It also gave Georgia an early 7-0 lead and set the tone for a decisive 41-17 victory. However, the touchdown was actually credited to Juwan Taylor, who picked up the ball and crossed into the end zone after Baker inadvertently dropped it before he scored.
Best Performance by a Player: D’Andre Swift vs. Kentucky
Swift’s 83-yard touchdown run against Kentucky, which increased Georgia’s lead to 28-3 in the third quarter and effectively broke the Wildcats’ spirits while sealing the SEC East title for the Bulldogs, is a worthy candidate for the category above. It also was the biggest play of arguably the best individual performance of the season by a Georgia player. Swift needed just 16 carries to rack up 156 rushing yards against a talented Kentucky defense. He also scored on a 20-yard scamper in the second quarter. Though Swift would go on to set new season and career highs with 186 rushing yards a week later against Auburn — and scored a similar 77-yard back-breaker in the fourth quarter against the Tigers - the high stakes involved in the matchup with the ninth-ranked Wildcats gives him the edge here.
Best Game (Team Performance): 34-17 Win at Kentucky
D'Andre Swift wasn’t the only Georgia standout in Lexington. Elijah Holyfield set a career high with 115 rushing yards and Jake Fromm was an efficient 14-for-20 passing for 113 yards and a TD. But the Bulldogs also put together one of the best defensive performances of the season against a dangerous Kentucky running game, holding the Wildcats to just 84 rushing yards and 2.4 yards per carry along with recording a season-best four sacks. Honorable mentions include a rivalry trifecta: the 36-17 slow-cooking victory over Florida in Jacksonville, a more-decisive-than-the-final-score-would-indicate 27-10 win over Auburn, and a suffocating defensive performance in the 45-21 win against Georgia Tech.
Defining Moment: Unable to Hold Fourth-Quarter Lead in SEC Championship Game vs. Alabama
Perhaps it’s unfair to judge an entire season — one in which a team wins 11 games and beats all of its biggest traditional rivals by double digits — by its loss in the conference championship game. Nevertheless, that’s where things stand at Georgia now. Under Kirby Smart, the Dawgs have become a recruiting behemoth and a perennial championship contender, both in conference and on the national stage. And as a result, if Georgia fails to win a title, the loss is the defining moment of the season.
Specifically, Georgia led 28-14 early in the third quarter, and held a 28-21 lead after Jaylen Waddle sped past the UGA defense for a 51-yard touchdown reception. The Bulldogs clung to that seven-point lead until the 5:19 mark, but surrendered a 16-play, 80-yard drive that ended with a 10-yard touchdown pass from Jalen Hurts to Jerry Jeudy. Not long after, the doomed fake punt on 4th-and-11 at the 50-yard line gave the Crimson Tide a short field and nearly three minutes left on the clock, and Hurts needed just five plays to lead Alabama into the end zone for a game-winning touchdown.
Biggest Surprise: Emergence of Elijah Holyfield
It’s not that Holyfield, a junior, was a complete unknown coming into the 2018 season, but some thought D’Andre Swift could contend for the Heisman Trophy as the featured tailback. Instead, injuries slowed the talented sophomore early in the season and Holyfield stepped up. Sometimes starting and usually splitting carries with Swift, Holyfield ran for 100 yards for the first time against Middle Tennessee, and he set new career highs with 20 carries against Florida and 115 rushing yards against Kentucky. Holyfield enters bowl season with 956 rushing yards and seven touchdowns on 147 carries — a close second to Swift in all three categories — and has a great shot to surpass 1,000 yards on the ground before the season ends.
Biggest Disappointment: Special Teams Fakes
The failed fake punt in the fourth quarter of the SEC Championship Game is sure to cause nightmares for Georgia fans for years to come, but it wasn’t the only questionably timed and poorly executed special teams fake of the season. Kirby Smart also called for a fake field goal in the first quarter on the road against LSU, which backfired and changed the momentum of that game. Trailing 3-0 and facing 4th-and-9 from the LSU 14-yard line, Rodrigo Blankenship ran with the football instead of kicking it, and fumbled. The Tigers capitalized and marched 84 yards in 12 plays, scoring on a one-yard QB sneak on 4th-and-goal to push the lead to 10-0, digging an early double-digit hole that Georgia could not climb out of.
Senior That Will be Missed the Most in 2019: Lamont Gaillard, C
D'Andre Walker and fellow linebackers Juwan Taylor and Natrez Patrick will be difficult to replace, as will defensive lineman Jonathan Ledbetter, but Kirby Smart and his coaching staff have built great depth among the defensive front seven. Replacing center and team captain Gaillard might be more difficult. Gaillard has been a fixture for the Dawgs on the offensive line since Smart returned to Athens, having started all 41 games in his tenure.
Player to Watch in 2019: Jeremiah Holloman, WR
At a place like Georgia, and with a roster stocked with talent, you can never guarantee a draft-eligible skill position player will be back the following season. While a player like Elijah Holyfield or wide receivers Mecole Hardman and Riley Ridley, or tight end Isaac Nauta might be a more obvious choice, fellow receiver Holloman is the best bet to play on Saturdays in 2019 instead of Sundays.
Holloman has had a breakout sophomore season, which includes 23 receptions for 387 yards and five touchdowns (two of which were key in the win over Florida). A big target at 6-foot-2 and 200 pounds, Holloman has proven to be a big-play receiver as well. His 16.83 yards per catch rank second on the team. Odds are Holloman will be even more productive as a junior given the departure of senior Terry Godwin. Should Hardman or Ridley make the jump to the NFL, Holloman would be in line to be one of Fromm’s top targets.
Biggest Offseason Question: What Does the Future Hold for Justin Fields?
Jake Fromm has been terrific, and there’s no reason to believe the sophomore won’t spend at least one more season atop the quarterback depth chart. Therefore, it’s fair to speculate whether or not Fields is content in his role as Fromm’s backup and usage in certain packages, or if he might consider another option.
The Bulldogs' coaching staff, which landed the five-star standout considered the No. 1 or No. 1-A overall player in the 2019 recruiting class alongside Clemson’s Trevor Lawrence, never quite found a consistent role for Fields in the offense. Fields’ talent and playmaking ability are off the charts, as he showed with 121 yards and two touchdowns on 5-for-8 passing and 100 yards and another score on the ground in his only extended action against UMass. Therefore, it would be understandable for Fields to be frustrated when he sees Lawrence leading the Tigers to the College Football Playoff as a true freshman, knowing it will probably be at least another season before he ascends to the starting role in Athens. That said, if Fields were to transfer to another FBS program, he’d need to sit out the 2019 season anyway. Will Fields stay put? Will he have a larger role in 2019? Or will Fields follow in Jacob Eason’s footsteps and transfer?