The Bulldogs' SEC title hopes will likely come down to how they play in Tuscaloosa and Jacksonville
Georgia Bulldogs head coach Kirby Smart hired a new offensive coordinator and landed not one, but two highly sought-after graduate transfer quarterbacks in an attempt to improve and modernize his team's offense for the 2020 season. But when the coronavirus pandemic shut down spring practice before it began, the Bulldogs were put in an even more difficult spot than most. Jamie Newman's later decision to opt out and set his sights on the 2021 NFL Draft added another layer of complication to the process.
But finally, after months of virtual meetings to install the offense, Georgia is back on campus, and fall camp is in full swing. Todd Monken can turn to former USC five-star JT Daniels as the Bulldogs' new starter, but he first must be cleared for contact following knee surgery last year. A 12-game starter who won the job as a true freshman for the Trojans, Daniels can now finally work with Monken and his teammates on the practice field, building a rapport with budding superstar receiver George Pickens and breaking in new starters at running back and along the offensive line. And if Daniels isn't ready for the season opener, redshirt freshman D'Wan Mathis has earned praise for his progress. The defense, expected to be one of the best in the nation, is also back and should force the new-look offense to grow up quickly.
The Dawgs also have a new schedule. The SEC's decision to go to a conference-only model this year means Georgia won't open against Virginia in Atlanta or finish the regular season against Georgia Tech — breaking a string of games that was uninterrupted since 1925 (or 1944, depending on which school's record book you're reading). Home games against East Tennessee State and ULM were also canceled.
Though Georgia was expected to be heavy favorites in each of its four regularly scheduled non-conference games, the Bulldogs' strength of schedule didn't increase dramatically following the move to an SEC-only slate. Smart's squad will now open on the road against former offensive line coach Sam Pittman's Arkansas Razorbacks, and Georgia will host Mississippi State and another first-year head coach in Mike Leach on Nov. 21. The Dawgs were already set to play Alabama in Tuscaloosa, and with capacity limited at Bryant-Denny Stadium, the home-field advantage won't be as big for the Crimson Tide. Georgia will still have an extra week to prepare for the de facto SEC East title game against Florida, which is expected to kick off in Jacksonville, as is tradition.
How will it all shake out? Assuming the new official schedule goes according to plan, we offer our game-by-game predictions for the 2020 Georgia football season.
Georgia Football Game-by-Game Predictions for 2020
Steven Lassan (@AthlonSteven)
Deciding between Florida and Georgia is probably the toughest preseason debate in the SEC. The revamped schedule was a little kinder to the Bulldogs, as the Gators added a road trip to Texas A&M and plays at Tennessee in the final game of the year. Georgia’s schedule still features the best team in the SEC (Alabama), but coach Kirby Smart’s team misses two out of the top three teams – Texas A&M and LSU – from the West. In other words, whichever team wins the annual battle in Jacksonville wins the East Division. Jamie Newman’s decision to opt out is a small setback, but there’s still plenty of talent at the position with JT Daniels or D’Wan Mathis battling for the job. But the question marks on offense aren’t necessarily limited to the quarterback spot. How will the offense jell with a new play-caller, revamped offensive line and a limited group of proven receivers? Georgia’s defense could be the best in college football. If all of the new pieces mesh on offense, the Bulldogs should win the East and push for a trip to the CFB Playoff. But there’s also enough transition to think Florida could push just ahead for 2020.
Mark Ross (@AthlonMarkR)
Georgia added Mississippi State and Arkansas to its original slate of SEC games, so it's not like the schedule got that much tougher. This season is likely going to come down to how Kirby Smart's team fares on the road against Alabama and in Jacksonville against Florida. While there's still a way for the Bulldogs to play in the SEC title game with losses in both games, any path to the College Football Playoff (assuming there's one) looks clearer if they can get to Atlanta with no more than one loss. As much talent as there is on this roster, I think the interrupted offseason and uncertainty when it comes to the quarterback position will impact the new-look offense just enough to result in the Dawgs stubbing their toe twice in the regular season.
Nicholas Ian Allen (@CFBWinningEdge)
Georgia's new schedule isn't much more difficult than the original, but playing 10 games against SEC competition is a tougher task than usual. Based on a potentially elite defense and roster strength and depth as a whole, the Bulldogs will likely be favored in at least eight contests. We should expect the Dawgs to be an underdog in Tuscaloosa, though that game is still winnable — especially without a crown of over 100,000 on hand. Top rivalry contests against Auburn and Florida appear to be the next most difficult tasks. Though Jamie Newman's departure may hurt the team's championship odds, Georgia should be a slight favorite against the Tigers at home early in the season, but may now be an underdog in the (hopefully socially distanced) Cocktail Party. If the Bulldogs can go 2-1 or better in those contests, the rest of the schedule is manageable, and the odds of making it back to the SEC Championship Game for the fourth straight season are high. If a two-loss team ever crashes the College Football Playoff, 2020 is it. However, Georgia must also avoid a South Carolina-like upset (with Tennessee and Kentucky the likeliest threats), for any hope of securing a playoff spot.