Expectations are sky high for the Georgia Bulldogs in 2019. Sure, the Dawgs suffered back-to-back losses to Alabama and Texas, respectively, to finish last season. And yes, there are question marks at receiver and linebacker. Truthfully, quarterback depth is a major cause for concern. There's also the fact head coach Kirby Smart was forced to replace both his coordinators after one left for a head coaching opportunity out west and the other jumped to a bitter rival.
But those red flags don't seem to bother many fans and analysts at this point in the preseason, who have penciled Georgia in as SEC East favorites and a potential College Football Playoff squad. And for good reason. After all, the Bulldogs are loaded thanks to the tireless recruiting effort of Smart and his coaching staff.
Quarterback Jake Fromm and running back D'Andre Swift have both been mainstays on offseason lists of Heisman Trophy contenders, and the dynamic duo will work behind an offensive line considered among the very best in the country. The defense – which returns seven starters and several other key contributors – ranked among the top 15 nationally across several major statistical categories, including scoring (19.2 ppg, No. 14), passing (180.3 ypg, No. 12), and total defense (314.3 ypg, No. 13).
The schedule also sets up well and the Bulldogs will likely be favored in every regular season game for the second straight season. Nevertheless, Georgia must navigate a long list of college football heavyweights to make it back to Atlanta for a third consecutive SEC Championship Game appearance.
With that in mind, we've ranked the toughest games on the Georgia football schedule in 2019:
12. Sept. 7 vs. Murray State
College basketball fans probably know a little more about Murray State this year thanks to Ja Morant (the No. 2 overall pick in the 2019 NBA Draft), who led the Racers to the second round of the NCAA Tournament last season. As for football, Murray State shouldn't pose a threat to Georgia. The Racers posted a 5-6 record at the FCS level in 2018, including a 48-10 loss to Kentucky.
11. Sept. 14 vs. Arkansas State
Arkansas State has won five Sun Belt titles this decade, and the Red Wolves have played in a bowl game in each of the last eight seasons. However, Blake Anderson's squad hasn't had much success knocking off big-name opponents. In fact, Arkansas State is on a 0-19 run against Power 5 teams.
Nevertheless, Anderson and his coaching staff have a handful of talented players, including receivers Kirk Merritt and Dahu Green (transfers from Texas A&M and Oklahoma, respectively), running back Marcel Murray, and all-conference candidates William Bradley-King, Forrest Merrill and Jerry Jacobs on defense.
10. Nov. 30 at Georgia Tech
Though Georgia and Georgia Tech are fierce, longtime rivals, the 2019 edition of Clean, Old Fashioned Hate might be one of the most lopsided matchups in recent series history. Georgia is a legitimate national championship contender, while Tech is starting over under new head coach Geoff Collins. The Yellow Jackets might be an underdog against every FBS opponent on the schedule this year.
Though Collins and his coaching staff have brought excitement to Atlanta, there's a long way to go to bridge the talent gap in the Peach State. And in the meantime, while the new coaches oversee the transition to new offensive and defensive schemes (so long, triple option), several notable transfers have arrived. Tyler Davis (UConn), Jared Southers (Vanderbilt), and Antonneous Clayton (Florida) are just some of the new names the Jackets will rely on in 2019.
9. Oct. 19 vs. Kentucky
The SEC East hung in the balance the last time Georgia and Kentucky met on the gridiron, and though the Wildcats came up short in a 34-17 loss in Lexington, the 2018 season was an unmitigated success for the UK football program. Of course, 2019 could be a completely different story.
After losing first-round draft pick Josh Allen to graduation and seeing all-time leading rusher Benny Snell leave early for the NFL, Kentucky welcomes back just eight total starters from last year's 10-win squad. Quarterback Terry Wilson, receiver Lynn Bowden, running back A.J. Rose, and a talented offensive line form a strong offensive nucleus, but the unit must improve its overall performance. Last season, Kentucky ranked 104th in the country in total offense and 85th in scoring. Defensively, the Wildcats must break in an entirely new secondary and find a way to replace Allen's 17 sacks.
8. Nov. 9 vs. Missouri
While the games that fill the No. 8 through No. 5 spots on this list are somewhat interchangeable, slotting Missouri here might raise a few eyebrows. After all, the Tigers are ranked No. 23 overall in Athlon Sports' 130 team rankings, while the next three names in these rankings come in at No. 50, No. 47 and No. 32, respectively.
And, of course, there are some analysts who believe Mizzou would be a dark-horse contender in the SEC East if and when the Tigers' postseason ban is lifted. Missouri's schedule also sets up well, so it shouldn't be a complete shock if Missouri is 8-0 when it visits Athens. But on that note, the Tigers must visit Athens, which at 735 miles away is one of the longest road trips in the conference (for reference, Texas A&M's rare trip from College Station to Georgia is an 895-mile jaunt).
Nevertheless, Mizzou is at a distinct talent disadvantage. According to CFB Winning Edge, the Tigers rank No. 29 nationally, but 11th in the SEC, with an 85.6 Roster Strength rating. Meanwhile, Georgia ranks fourth overall and second in the league in Roster Strength with a 90.76 rating. As a result, CFB Winning Edge projects the Dawgs as a 19.65-point favorite, which equates to an 87 percent win probability: higher than the chances UGA has of beating Vanderbilt (79 percent), South Carolina (76 percent) or Tennessee (64 percent).
7. Aug. 31 at Vanderbilt
Georgia hasn't opened its season against an SEC opponent since 1995, and the Bulldogs haven't played a true road game in Week 1 of any season since 2013. Both streaks will come to an end this year when the Dawgs make the trip north to Nashville to kick off the 2019 campaign against Vanderbilt.
The Commodores enter the season with modest expectations but are also riding the momentum of an offensive explosion at the tail end of 2018. Vandy scored 28 points or more in each of its final five games (and 36 or more in four of those), a stretch that concluded with Ke'Shawn Vaughn's 243-yard rushing yard performance in the Texas Bowl.
6. Oct. 12 vs. South Carolina
In terms of raw talent, the Gamecocks have the players to compete with anybody on any given Saturday. Carolina has a deep and experienced roster headlined by QB Jake Bentley, wideout Bryan Edwards, and standout defenders Javon Kinlaw, D.J. Wonnum and Jaycee Horn.
But unfortunately for head coach Will Muschamp, his squad must navigate a brutal schedule that might be the toughest in the nation. One bright spot: though the Gamecocks must travel to Athens, they'll have an extra week to prepare an attack in hopes of beating Georgia for the first time since 2014.
5. Oct. 5 at Tennessee
Following its marquee matchup with Notre Dame, Georgia will have an extra week of preparation ahead of its trip to Knoxville. However, what would normally be a scheduling advantage for the Bulldogs is minimized because Tennessee is one of five (!) teams during a stretch of six midseason games (!) with a bye the week before playing the Dawgs.
There are also a few other factors making the Volunteers a tricky opponent, despite last year's disappointing 5-7 (2-6 SEC) record. First of all, thanks to a talented and experienced roster, Tennessee could be in line for a Year 2 bump under head coach Jeremy Pruitt. Secondly, former Georgia offensive coordinator Jim Chaney will be in the opposing coaches box, where he can draw on his experience calling plays against a Kirby Smart-led defense from their days on the practice field, and also draw upon his knowledge of the strengths and weaknesses of the Bulldogs' offensive players for his new Tennessee colleagues.
4. Sept. 21 vs. Notre Dame
Georgia fans turned South Bend red and black in 2017 before the Bulldogs escaped with a 20-19 victory. However, the Fighting Irish are 21-3 since, and last year rolled off a 12-0 record in the regular season to earn a spot in the College Football Playoff.
Notre Dame relied heavily on its defense during its undefeated run in 2018, having held every opponent to 27 points or fewer before losing to Clemson 30-3 in the Cotton Bowl. But quarterback Ian Book, up-and-coming running back Jafar Armstrong, a talented group of receivers, and a veteran offensive line could help the Irish break into the top 25 offensively in 2019 after ranking No. 42 in scoring (31.4 ppg) and No. 32 in total offense (440.1 ypg) last year.
3. Nov. 23 vs. Texas A&M
We already pointed out the nearly 900-mile journey Texas A&M must travel to play Between the Hedges. Also, like South Carolina, the Aggies are in the running for the Toughest Schedule Award. Both points might lead us to believe the Aggies would be tired, and potentially run down, prior to the first SEC showdown for these two teams. Nevertheless, given the talent on hand for head coach Jimbo Fisher, and the fact Georgia must face A&M one week after arguably its toughest road game of the season, the Aggies wholeheartedly deserve a spot in the top three on this list.
Quarterback Kellen Mond is a rising star and he'll have a deep receiving corps, as well as a veteran offensive line, with which to work. Though the defense is inexperienced (especially among the front seven) Texas A&M has one of the best defensive coordinators in the country in Mike Elko. The Aggies will also have nearly three full months to round into shape before facing the Dawgs.
2. Nov. 16 at Auburn
As usual, the Auburn Tigers are one of the toughest teams in the country to predict. Following last year's struggles (of which subpar offensive line play was a major culprit), head coach Gus Malzahn has taken the play-calling duties into his own hands once again. Though Malzahn sparked the Tigers to a 63-point performance in the Music City Bowl, he also has a quarterback battle to work through following the early departure of starter Jarrett Stidham.
If the defense plays to its potential (and the Tigers have arguably the best defensive line in the country, as well as a solid, experienced secondary), Auburn could beat anybody. On paper, this is a top-20 team, and the Tigers have the odd-year benefit of hosting both Georgia and Alabama. Two years ago, Auburn knocked off both, including a 40-17 drubbing of the Dawgs at Jordan-Hare.
1. Nov. 2 vs. Florida (Jacksonville, Fla.)
It should come as no surprise that Georgia's top two SEC rivals come in at Nos. 1 and 2 in our rankings of the toughest games on the Bulldogs' 2019 schedule. Especially since Dan Mullen turned Florida around quickly in his first season as the head coach. Mullen helped the Gators improve from 4-7 in 2017 to 10-3 last year, and though Georgia scored a 36-17 victory in Jacksonville, the loss to the Bulldogs was much closer than the final score would indicate.
More importantly, the Gators have re-established themselves as the primary threat to the Dawgs' recent SEC East dominance. Thanks largely to the growth of quarterback Feliepe Franks over the final four games of the 2018 season, Florida enters 2019 as a legitimate contender in the division and should be considered a CFP dark horse. Franks has a wealth of skill talent around him, including one of the top receiver units in college football, and the Gators defense has the potential to be a top 20 unit once again. If the offensive line comes together, the sky is the limit.