Georgia's three-year reign atop the SEC East ended last season but don't expect the Bulldogs to take that lying down. Kirby Smart has built a consistent winner during his tenure in Athens, which is now in its sixth year.
With five straight recruiting classes ranked in the top four overall, talent is not the issue. Twelve starters are back from last year's team that went 8-2 and finished things off with a win over Cincinnati in the Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl.
Most of the returning experience is on offense, which looked drastically different once USC transfer JT Daniels took over at quarterback. Wide receiver George Pickens' ACL injury suffered at the start of spring practice is a big loss but the presence of other productive targets, as well as the top five running backs and three starting offensive linemen, still paint an optimistic outlook for the Bulldogs' attack.
The tougher chore for Smart is filling in several holes on his defense, which was 12th nationally in yards allowed per game and No. 1 against the run last season. The cupboard isn't completely bare, however, especially when you consider Georgia's steady supply of highly regarded recruits.
But talent alone won't get the job done, something these Bulldogs know all too well considering they have appeared in the College Football Playoff just once in Smart's five years. That remains the goal and Georgia will certainly be able to prove its worthy of a shot at the national title after navigating a schedule that features a highly anticipated matchup with a perennial playoff participant in addition to the usual rugged SEC slate.
Here's a look at how the Bulldogs' potential path to the playoff breaks down this fall.
Bye: Week 8
Week 1 – Sept. 4 vs. Clemson (Charlotte, N.C.)
This is a potential College Football Playoff preview just as soon as the season gets started. Clemson won't have Trevor Lawrence or Travis Etienne on offense, but like Georgia, the Tigers don't lack for talent on either side of the ball. The defense should once again be stout and new quarterback D.J. Uiagalelei flashed his dual-threat skills in a pair of starts last season, including an overtime loss to Notre Dame.
Week 2 – Sept. 11 vs. UAB (Athens, Ga.)
UAB is Georgia's only Group of 5 opponent on the schedule but that doesn't mean the Blazers should be taken lightly. Bill Clark is a rising star in the coaching ranks as he's led his team to a pair of Conference USA titles over the past three seasons. Regardless of what happens against Clemson, the Bulldogs better be ready for their home opener or they could be in for a rude awakening in Stanford Stadium.
Week 3 – Sept. 18 vs. South Carolina (Athens, Ga.)
South Carolina is embarking on a new era under head coach Shane Beamer, who has a lot of work ahead of him. The Bulldogs should be able to handle a team that went 2-8 last year and one they beat handily last time out, but the Gamecocks have been a thorn in their side before (see 2019).
Week 4 – Sept. 25 at Vanderbilt (Nashville, Tenn.)
Vanderbilt also is starting over with a new head coach. And while former Notre Dame defensive coordinator Clark Lea seems like a great fit it's going to take time for him to turn his alma mater's fortunes around. The Commodores went winless last season, including a 30-6 road loss to Georgia. The Bulldogs shouldn't have to work too hard to pick up their first true road win of the season.
Week 5 – Oct. 2 vs. Arkansas (Athens, Ga.)
Yes, Arkansas went just 3-7 last season but it's clear these are a different batch of Razorbacks under head coach Sam Pittman. And Pittman is quite familiar with Georgia having served as Smart's offensive line coach the previous four seasons before leaving for Arkansas. The Bulldogs defeated the Razorbacks 37-10 in Fayetteville last season but were trailing in the game halfway through the third quarter before pouring it on late. So while Arkansas isn't anywhere close to Alabama's level (Georgia's other SEC West crossover opponent last season), don't be surprised if the steadily improving Razorbacks provide Smart's team with another stern test.
Week 6 – Oct. 9 at Auburn (Auburn, Ala.)
Georgia has won four in a row against Auburn but Jordan-Hare Stadium is not an easy place to leave with a win. The Tigers are moving on from Gus Malzahn, who went 2-7 against the Bulldogs, turning the program over to former Boise State head coach Bryan Harsin. These are the games that Harsin will be measured against, although he'll probably be granted a little grace in his debut season. That doesn't mean that Auburn will take it easy against Georgia, who will probably have much more riding on this game by the time it comes around.
Week 7 – Oct. 16 vs. Kentucky (Athens, Ga.)
Georgia has beaten Kentucky 11 straight times, holding the Wildcats to a total of three points in the last two meetings. It was an uneven 2020 campaign for UK, who finished 5-6 but with some momentum after beating NC State in the Gator Bowl. Mark Stoops has turned the Wildcats into a tough out, but is looking for much better results on offense under new coordinator Liam Coen and also must replace seven starters on defense.
Week 9 – Oct. 30 vs. Florida (Jacksonville, Fla.)
Florida ended Georgia's three-year grip on the SEC East last season thanks to an impressive 44-28 victory in their annual grudge match. Dan Mullen has certainly helped the Gators narrow the gap with the Bulldogs, but only nine starters return from last year's team. Georgia also knows it won't have to contend with Kyle Trask or his three top targets (Kyle Pitts, Kadarius Toney, Trevon Grimes) this time around. And there's the revenge factor of course.
Week 10 – Nov. 6 vs. Missouri (Athens, Ga.)
Missouri opened a few eyes during its 5-5 campaign last season, but was no match for Georgia, losing 49-14. The Tigers could surprise some teams once again this fall with quarterback Connor Bazelak leading Eli Drinkwitz's offense, but top running back Larry Rountree III and stud linebacker Nick Bolton are some big shoes that need to be filled. It may not come easy but the Bulldogs should extend their winning streak against Missouri to eight in a row.
Week 11 – Nov. 13 at Tennessee (Knoxville, Tenn.)
To put it bluntly, Tennessee hasn't been competitive against Georgia in a while, losing the last four meetings by an average of nearly 30 points. New head coach Josh Heupel has been tasked with turning things around on Rocky Top, but it's going to take time. Besides breaking in a new coaching staff, the roster is in disarray thanks to transfers with only seven projected starters returning. It's an SEC road game, but the Bulldogs will likely be favored by quite a bit.
Week 12 – Nov. 20 vs. Charleston Southern (Athens, Ga.)
Charleston Southern is playing an abbreviated spring schedule like many FCS teams and is 0-2 thus far. The Buccaneers made the playoffs in the subdivision in 2015 and '16, but are just 11-13 since. Their record really doesn't matter, however, as Georgia has outscored its past three FCS opponents 150-31 since getting a scare from Nicholls (26-24) in Smart's first season (2016).
Week 13 – Nov. 27 at Georgia Tech (Atlanta)
Georgia has won three in a row against Georgia Tech, and in convincing fashion, outscoring the Yellow Jackets by 100 points. Even though this game comes at the end of the season, it seems a bit much to expect Geoff Collins' team to give the Bulldogs much of a fight. Especially if Georgia is firmly in the College Football Playoff conversation by this point.
(Top photo by Chamberlain Smith, courtesy of georgiadogs.com)