The Georgia Bulldogs finished 8-2 last season, including a 24-21 victory over previously undefeated Cincinnati in the Peach Bowl. The win pushed the Dawgs to No. 7 in the final AP Top 25, up two spots from Georgia's place in the final College Football Playoff rankings.
Given the SEC-only schedule, it was an impressive year. Losing 41-24 to the eventual national champions — after leading that dominant Alabama team 24-20 at halftime — is nothing to be ashamed of. The 44-28 loss to Florida, while undoubtedly painful to the Bulldog Nation, was at least understandable (unlike the head-scratching loss to South Carolina in 2019 that likely kept Georgia out of the playoff). Of course, there are no moral victories for Georgia football under Kirby Smart. After winning the SEC in 2017 and losing the national title game in heartbreaking fashion that season, there has been a clear mandate in Athens: National championship or bust. Fair, or not.
Can the Bulldogs live up to those championship expectations in 2021? We explore three reasons to be optimistic about Georgia next season.
1. JT Daniels
Georgia lost to both Alabama and Florida with Stetson Bennett IV as its starting quarterback. With no offense intended toward Bennett personally — it's worth noting he had the trust of the coaching staff and the respect of his teammates — the former walk-on and junior college transfer was at least the fourth option to take those snaps before the season started. Nevertheless, Jamie Newman opted out, JT Daniels wasn't ready, and D'Wan Mathis struggled, which all opened the door for Bennett, who completed 55.5 percent of his passes for 1,179 yards and eight touchdowns, while averaging 7.6 yards per pass attempt and tossing six interceptions. Bennett appeared in eight games and started five, but eventually gave way to Daniels. And when the former 5-star USC transfer finally took over, the Dawgs played at a new level on offense.
Daniels made his first start for Georgia against Mississippi State and his 12th in college, and set career highs with 401 passing yards and four touchdowns. Across four starts, Daniels averaged 10.3 yards per pass attempt, which would have tied North Carolina standout Sam Howell for sixth on the FBS leaderboard (and less than one yard behind leader and Heisman Trophy finalist Mac Jones) had he played enough to qualify. Most importantly, the Dawgs won all four games, and averaged 37.3 points per contest. Georgia scored 29.0 points on average with Mathis and Bennett starting. The Bulldogs averaged 209.3 passing yards and 382.8 yards of total offense across the first six games and improved to 310.8 and 486.0, respectively, with Daniels in the lineup. They also improved their average yards per play from 5.42 to 7.51.
Daniels, a draft-eligible third-year sophomore in 2020, decided to come back for a second season at Georgia. That's a big deal in itself. Keeping the continuity with offensive coordinator Todd Monken (also entering his second year in Athens) is bigger. But looking ahead to next season — and looking around at the programs Georgia is expected to compete with for the SEC title and a playoff spot — Daniels' experience could give the Bulldogs an edge.
Of the teams that finished the season ranked higher in the AP poll, only No. 6 Oklahoma also welcomes back its starting quarterback. That list also includes Clemson, Georgia's season-opening opponent, and Alabama and Texas A&M, the two likeliest to represent the SEC West in Atlanta. Florida, which lost its final three games and fell to No. 13, must replace Heisman finalist Kyle Trask, and of the SEC opponents on the Bulldogs' 2021 schedule, only Auburn (which fired its head coach and also will have a new offensive coordinator), Missouri and Vanderbilt (winless last season and also undergoing a coaching change) bring back a full-time starter under center.
2. Offensive playmakers
Daniels isn't the only big-name offensive player who could have pursued an early professional career. Entering 2020, it appeared Georgia would lose at least one of its top two running backs to the NFL draft. Instead, both Zamir White, who led the team with 779 rushing yards and 11 touchdowns, and James Cook, who in addition to running for 303 yards ranked fourth on the team with 225 receiving yards and scored five total touchdowns, decided to return. Assuming Kenny McIntosh, Daijun Edwards and Kendall Milton all stay in the fold, and the addition of 4-star recruit Lovasea Carroll, the Bulldogs have one of the deepest and most talented running back groups in the country.
There's also George Pickens, who should be one of the best receivers in the nation in 2021. Pickens caught 36 passes for 513 yards and a team-leading six touchdowns as a true sophomore last season to following a Freshman All-SEC campaign and Sugar Bowl MVP performance in 2019. Many scouts see him as an early-round draft pick in 2022. Kearis Jackson matched Pickens' receptions total, beat him by one receiving yard for the team lead, and like true freshman Jermaine Burton (one of four 4-star wideout recruits in the 2020 class), caught three touchdown passes. Former 5-star tight end Darnell Washington finished his freshman season strong, and there have also been whispers over the last few weeks the Dawgs could add even more weapons through the transfer portal.
3. Front seven
Georgia's offense appears poised for a big step forward in 2021, but the Bulldogs are set to suffer some big personnel losses on the other side of the ball. UGA ranked second in the SEC and No. 16 nationally by allowing 20.0 points per game, and led the league and ranked No. 10 overall in yards allowed per play (4.86). Defensive lineman Malik Herring, linebacker Monty Rice and defensive backs D.J. Daniel, Mark Webb and Richard LeCounte have all indicated they will not take advantage of the NCAA's extra season of eligibility next season. Pass rusher Azeez Ojulari and corners Eric Stokes and Tyson Campbell joined them in declaring for the 2021 NFL Draft. Tyrique Stevenson, who started at corner in the Peach Bowl and would have been penciled in atop the depth chart entering spring practice, transferred to Miami. Linebacker Jermaine Johnson, once the No. 1 junior college recruit in the nation, left for Florida State.
All eight players started at least three games in 2020. Herring, Ojulari, Rice, Campbell, Stokes and LeCounte (who missed the final four regular season games as a result of injuries he suffered in a car accident) were full-time starters. The group combined to play 3,443 snaps last season, an average of 430.4 per player for a Georgia defense that lined up for 661 total plays. They made up 40.5 percent of the Bulldogs' total tackling production, 50.8 percent of its tackles for a loss, 48.4 percent of its sacks, all nine of the team's interceptions, and 77.1 percent of its pass breakups.
But hey; we're talking about optimism here! Despite the likelihood Georgia will have one of the least experienced defenses in the SEC, and potentially, one of the youngest secondaries in the country in 2021, the Dawgs have several top players returning. The front seven could be just as good, and maybe even better, next year.
Ojulari was one of the top pass rushers in the country and was credited with 37 total pressures in 2020. He earned an elite 90.0 defensive grade and an even better 91.7 pass rushing grade from Pro Football Focus, both of which ranked in the top 20 nationally among all defensive players. But one Georgia pass rusher was higher on the leaderboard. Adam Anderson graded out at 93.0 overall and 92.5, respectively — both among the top 10 nationally of the 5,000 or so scholarship defensive players on FBS rosters. Though Anderson played only 130 snaps, he was credited with 23 total pressures. Only 113 players had more all season. Anderson recorded 6.5 sacks and forced two fumbles, and he should be in line for an expanded role in 2021.
Top tackler Nakobe Dean, who led the unit with 71 total, also is set to return, as is No. 4 tackler Quay Walker (43). Fellow linebacker Channing Tindall contributed four tackles for a loss and three sacks, and Nolan Smith chipped in with 2.5 sacks. Up front, Jalen Carter had three TFLs as a true freshman and Travon Walker and Devonta Wyatt each had two. All should be back, as is 6-foot-6, 330-pound mountain of a nose tackle Jordan Davis, whose impact (when healthy) goes far beyond the stat sheet. In terms of raw talent on hand, the remaining defensive linemen on the Georgia roster, along with this year's signees, have an average rating of 0.9078 in the 247Sports Composite — eighth among all FBS defensive line groups. Bulldog linebackers average 0.9588, which is the highest in all the land, and includes a pair of 5-star early enrollees (Smael Mondon and Xavian Sorey) who could contribute immediately. Together, the front seven is one of the most talented in the country.
And despite the turnover in the secondary, safeties Lewis Cine (551 snaps) and Christopher Smith (415) ranked second and fifth on the team in playing time last season. So, it's not a complete rebuild. Georgia may be forced to call on incoming freshmen Nyland Green, David Daniel and Kamari Lassiter more than previously expected in 2021, and Smart and his coaching staff may see what the transfer portal has to offer, but talent certainly isn't an issue. It never is at Georgia, which is why the Bulldogs should be optimistic about their chances to win the SEC and make another playoff run next season.
(Top photo by Travis Bell, courtesy of georgiadogs.com)