Georgia finds itself in a familiar situation in Kirby Smart’s fifth year with the program. Expectations are high once again, and it’s due in large part to a tremendous amount of talent across the board.
The Bulldogs have finished No. 3, No. 1, No. 2, and No. 1 the last four years in the 247Sports Composite team rankings, and for the first time since Smart took the job in December 2015, the roster is completely his. There are no holdovers from the Mark Richt era, and the defensive-minded head coach has remade several positions on the roster.
Coming off a third straight 11-win regular season, UGA is one of the favorites once again in the SEC East. If you look at the national championship odds, you’ll find the program somewhere between 10 to 1 and 12 to 1, maybe a tad higher. The defense is as deep, experienced and talented as any the Bulldogs have seen in recent memory, and the offense is undergoing a makeover with a new quarterback and offensive coordinator.
Winning hasn’t been a problem for UGA in a long time, but winning big is something that has eluded the program for decades. Due to the amount of talent on the roster, that has a chance to change in the near future.
Previewing Georgia's Offense for 2020
Smart saw the need for change after the 2019 season. Georgia went 12–2 on the year with a second straight loss in the SEC Championship Game. It was a season that most programs would celebrate, but it was also pretty clear that something wasn’t right on the offensive side of the ball.
Smart attempted to remedy that in January when he hired Todd Monken as offensive coordinator. The price for landing Monken was ace recruiter James Coley, the Bulldogs' play-caller and quarterbacks coach in 2019, but it was one Smart was willing to pay.
Monken has fielded some highly effective offenses at Oklahoma State, where he was offensive coordinator, and Southern Miss, where he was head coach. He was also quite good at the NFL level with Tampa Bay and Cleveland. He’ll have a brand-new quarterback in Jamie Newman, and the advantage gained by getting him on campus in January was almost completely wiped out when spring drills were canceled due to the spread of the coronavirus.
Losing those 15 practices (12 regular practices and three scrimmages) will force the Bulldogs to break in a new play-caller and a new triggerman in short order. They’ll also be searching for a new running back after six different 1,000-yard performances in four seasons. Zamir White seems likely to shoulder most of the load.
The wide receiver position has been bolstered and returns its most productive weapon from a year ago in George Pickens, but the offensive line must replace four key contributors, including both tackles. It’ll be a challenge for new position coach Matt Luke.
Previewing Georgia's Defense for 2020
Smart used the moniker “no-name defense” on multiple occasions, but that doesn’t speak to the program’s talent level on that side of the ball. Defensive coordinator Dan Lanning, who got a $500,000 raise to $1.25 million this offseason, employed as many as 25 players to play significant roles in his first season manning that post. He used a rotation at every position but safety.
The Bulldogs were hit hardest up front, but five potential difference-makers return with defensive ends Malik Herring and Travon Walker leading the way.
When you combine inside and outside linebacker, UGA used 10 players in 2019, and nine of them are back. Monty Rice has returned after eschewing the 2020 NFL Draft. He’ll call the defense and be the leader in the front seven. Edge rushers Nolan Smith and Azeez Ojulari have the raw talent to help UGA surge closer to the top of the SEC and nation in tackles for a loss and sacks.
The secondary is absolutely stacked. All but J.R. Reed, a safety who was a finalist for the Paycom Jim Thorpe Award in 2019, are back. Richard LeCounte III is one to watch after leading the Bulldogs in interceptions as a junior.
Previewing Georgia's Specialists for 2020
Former Alabama strength and conditioning coach Scott Cochran will have the special teams reins in 2020. It’s his first on-field job, and he has to replace highly productive placekicker Rodrigo Blankenship. Punter Jake Camarda might fill those shoes, but the Bulldogs also signed the nation’s No. 5 kicker in 2020, Jared Zirkel. All weapons are back in the return game. Dominick Blaylock and Kearis Jackson can handle punts, while James Cook and Demetris Robertson have experience handling kickoffs. Georgia isn’t lacking for athletes when it comes to the complimentary special teams positions.
If the offense jells, Georgia has as good of a chance as anyone to make a run. Newman showed that he had the goods in 2019, and if he and Monken can get on the same page, there’s plenty of talent for the Bulldogs to post big plays and scare opposing defenses. The biggest concern for the defense is depth at safety, and that tells you where the Bulldogs are on that side of the ball. The front seven should be one of the best in the country, and the pieces are there to be elite in the back half. Smart’s fifth team at UGA is probably his most talented.
National Ranking: 7
(Top photo by Chamberlain Smith)