First-year Georgia head coach Kirby Smart stuck with Nick Saban for eight seasons as Alabama's defensive coordinator. Despite multiple coaching opportunities, he held out for the perfect job — and now he's found it. Smart inherits plenty of talent in Athens, including top-tier running back duo Nick Chubb and Sony Michel, as well as young quarterback prodigy Jacob Eason and a capable defense that simply needs his expertise. But Chubb and Michel need to get healthy, and Eason, despite his clear ability, is a true freshman. There are going to be some challenges.
That makes it even tougher for the guy succeeding Mark "10 wins a year" Richt. Fans are expecting nothing less than a national championship in the near future. How long will it take before Georgia is ready to compete at a national level? Athlon polled a few writers to get their take on Georgia's 2016 win/loss potential.
Georgia Football Game-by-Game Predictions for 2016
Cody McClure (CodyMcClureCFB)
If the ball bounces their way a couple times, the Bulldogs are going to be plenty good enough to win the SEC East. Tennessee is the favorite but the Volunteers still have to prove they can consistently beat ranked teams. And despite winning the division last year, Florida finished the season terribly. Georgia's biggest advantage this year will be its schedule. The 'Dawgs get Tennessee at home and also avoid Alabama and LSU in the SEC West. If Georgia gets by the Vols and Gators, it will be a near certainty that the 'Dawgs end up in Atlanta — regardless of what happens in the cross-division games.
Steven Lassan (@AthlonSteven)
Georgia might be the biggest wild card team in the SEC this season. The Bulldogs have enough talent to win the East Division, especially with a schedule that features home dates against Tennessee and Auburn and no Alabama or LSU in crossover play. Although Mark Richt won a lot of games in Athens, the fresh approach by new head coach Kirby Smart should provide an overall boost for the program. But in order for Smart to match Florida’s Jim McElwain and win the East in his first year, the Bulldogs have to identify a quarterback and rebuild a defense that was hit hard by departures in the front seven. While those areas are both concerns, five-star freshman quarterback Jacob Eason could be an All-SEC passer by the end of 2016, and the defense has a handful of talented players waiting to step into starting roles. If Eason quickly settles into the starting job, and the defense fills the voids up front by mid-September, getting to 10-2 is realistic. Admittedly, it’s tough to find a third loss on Georgia’s schedule, but I’m guessing this team drops another game outside of Ole Miss and Tennessee to finish 9-3.
Bryan Fischer (BryanDFischer)
New head coach Kirby Smart may be among the luckiest first-time head coaches in recent memory given what kind of program he inherits in Athens. There's enough talent to surprise people and win the weak SEC East but it will still be an uphill battle where the Bulldogs need to win a few toss-up games. This team will go as far as the offense will take them, which might be asking a bit much if they have to use a true freshman starter at QB and figure things out along the offensive line.
Kevin McGuire (KevinOnCFB)
Georgia is a big question mark for me in 2016. With a new head coach in Kirby Smart, the possibility of having a freshman quarterback in Jacob Eason and a defense replacing its entire defensive line and linebacker corps, there are reasons to be concerned about Georgia this fall until these questions are answered. There will not be too much time to waste though, as Georgia gets right at it with games against North Carolina, Ole Miss and Tennessee in the first five weeks. That could very well lead to a disappointing three losses before getting to the bye week. Georgia could turn out to be a pleasant surprise in Smart's first season, but UNC, Ole Miss and Tennessee could be getting Georgia at the best possible time they could.
One force to reckon with that could change some of these outcomes is Georgia's running game. It was the meat of the offense under Mark Richt and Smart would be, well, smart, to keep that going with Nick Chubb and Sony Michel teaming up to form one of the top running duos in the country.
Rob McVey (@Rob_UTVOLS)
The Bulldogs are as stout as anyone in the country at running back, and the secondary should be elite as well. Other than that, there are still more questions than answers regarding this team. A first-year head coach in Kirby Smart, a quarterback controversy, an unproven front seven on defense, and a suspect kicking game are just a few of the legitimate concerns facing this team heading into the 2016 campaign. That being said, there is plenty of potential talent on the roster, and Smart brought in an ace staff, most notably Jim Chaney, Sam Pittman and Mel Tucker, that will get the most out of the inexperienced players. But it probably won’t happen right away, and the Bulldogs have to face three of their toughest opponents in the first six games.
(Top photo courtesy of UGA Athletics)