It didn't take long for head coach Kirby Smart to establish theGeorgia Bulldogs as annual College Football Playoff contenders. Georgia won the SEC championship during Smart's second season to earn the nod in 2017. The Dawgs were minutes away from a repeat before losing a late lead against Alabama in last year's return trip to Atlanta. Some media members were vocal the 11-2 Bulldogs should have been voted into the four-team field anyway.
As we prepare for the 2019 season, Georgia should stay in the mix for a playoff spot. Smart and his coaching staff are in reload mode, and despite turnover at some key positions, the Bulldogs have the talent to compete. Here we discuss three of the reasons Georgia will make it back to the dance, as well as three factors that could cause the Dawgs to come up short once more.
Three Reasons Why Georgia Will Make the College Football Playoff in 2019
1. Quarterback Jake Fromm
Fromm is finally the unquestioned starter in Athens — and for good reason. Fromm outlasted five-star challengers Jacob Eason and Justin Fields, who transferred to Washington and Ohio State, respectively, to lead the Bulldogs to a 23-5 record as the starter over the last two years. He's thrown for a combined 5,364 yards and 54 touchdowns with just 13 interceptions while completing 64.8 percent of his passes during that time.
Another efficient season behind center could put Fromm in the conversation for the Heisman Trophy, especially if he leads Georgia to a second SEC championship in three seasons.
Fromm's health is paramount. Should he go down at some point, backup Stetson Bennett IV, a junior college transfer and former Georgia walk-on, would likely be called upon because four-star true freshman D'Wan Mathis, the only other scholarship QB on the roster, is still recovering from surgery he underwent in May to remove a life-threatening brain cyst.
2. Offensive line
Center Lamont Gilliard started 42 games for Georgia, and he performed well enough to be selected by the Arizona Cardinals in the sixth round of this year's NFL draft. But Gilliard's departure doesn't change the opinion of those who believe the Bulldogs could field the best offensive line in program history in 2019 and challenge for the Joe Moore Award.
Four starters return and six have starting experience, led by All-American candidate left tackle Andrew Thomas and All-SEC-caliber guard Solomon Kindley. Right tackle Isaiah Wilson, guard Jamaree Salyer, swingman Cade Mays, and newcomer Clay Webb were all five-star recruits. Trey Hill, who started four games at right guard as a true freshman last season, should step into Gilliard's shoes at center.
3. Special teams
This spot could go in a lot of directions. Running back D'Andre Swift has gotten a lot of Heisman buzz during the offseason and safety J.R. Reed is an All-American candidate and leads a group of four returning starters in the secondary. However, thinking back to the SEC Championship Game and one of the most disastrous fake punt calls in recent memory reminds us how important special teams is to Georgia's success.
Kicker Rodrigo Blankenship could have left early for the NFL. The All-SEC performer was 19-for-23 on field goals last season, has a career long of 55 yards, has never missed an extra point, and consistently booms kickoffs into the end zone to keep opposing offenses at bay. Punter Jake Camarda returns following a freshman season in which he averaged 42.6 yards on 43 punts. It would be reasonable to expect that average to climb in 2019. The Bulldogs will miss returner Mecole Hardman, but plenty of options exist, including dynamic freshman Dominick Blaylock. And Smart and the coaching staff will likely learn from last year's fake mistake.
Three Reasons Why Georgia Won't Make the College Football Playoff in 2019
A team's schedule can have just as much of an impact on its chances of making the playoff as the makeup of its roster. And Georgia, which is loaded with talent at every position, must still navigate a tough slate of SEC opponents and survive a visit from 2018 playoff team Notre Dame.
In addition to annual dates with rivals Florida and Auburn, Georgia also faces Texas A&M for the first time as a member of the SEC. The Aggies have modest expectations given the brutal schedule they are set to face, but Jimbo Fisher's team played Clemson to the wire and knocked off a pair of top-15 teams in his first season.
Should Georgia win the SEC East for the third straight season, the Bulldogs will likely play Alabama again, or potentially an LSU squad that beat the Dawgs 36-16 during the 2018 regular season. Georgia could likely afford one defeat and still make the playoff, but we've yet to see a two-loss team qualify.
2. Coordinator turnover
Coaching continuity is obviously an asset for a program. Though we've seen Alabama survive the merry-go-round of the coordinator coaching carousel to stay in the national title hunt year after year, most programs can't. Georgia will try in 2019 following the departure of offensive play-caller Jim Chaney, who was hired as the new offensive coordinator at Tennessee, and defensive coordinator Mel Tucker, who is now the head coach at Colorado.
On a positive note, new OC James Coley and DC Dan Lanning were both on Smart's staff last season and were promoted, so there's some consistency. Coley's transition should be smooth, as he can lean on Fromm and the potent Georgia rushing attack. Nevertheless, there's always a learning curve for both coaches and players when someone new is calling plays.
Lanning also will have plenty of talent to work with, but some young and inexperienced players will need to grow up quickly. The linebacker corps will likely have four new starters. Two first-year players, junior college transfer Jermaine Johnson and true freshman Nolan Smith, challenged for starting spots this spring.
The receiving corps was already the No. 1 roster concern following the early NFL departures of Mecole Hardman, Riley Ridley and Isaac Nauta, Georgia's top three leaders in receiving yardage in 2018, and the graduation of No. 5 Terry Godwin. But the offseason dismissal of leading returning receiver Jeremiah Holloman means Georgia must now replace 76.16 percent of its receiving yardage from last season — most among all Power 5 teams and third most in the country.
The top leading wide receiver from last year's group is Tyler Simmons, who caught nine passes for 138 yards and two touchdowns. That means Fromm must rely heavily on newcomers like Miami transfer Lawrence Cager and freshmen Dominick Blaylock and George Perkins to provide an immediate impact, as well as get more from former five-star Cal transfer Demetris Robertson, who had more carries (4) than catches (0) in his first season with the Bulldogs.
Smart has built a roster with enough talent to win the national championship. The Bulldogs rank third in the country in average 247Sports rating (.9163) on its current roster, behind only Alabama (.9280) and Ohio State (.9169). Georgia ranks No. 4 with a 90.73 CFB Winning Edge Roster Strength rating, which adjusts recruiting talent projections for experience and career production. Only Alabama (92.69), Ohio State (91.96) and defending national champion Clemson fare better.
In other words, Georgia will have a talent advantage in every game it plays during the regular season and the Bulldogs are likely to be favored in all 12 games (assuming Fromm stays healthy). Only one team would have a more talented roster in an SEC Championship Game matchup.
Therefore, the Dawgs should make it back to the College Football Playoff. Failure to do so would fall on Smart and the coaching staff.
Athlon’s Projected Final Ranking: 3
Athlon’s Projected Final Record: 12-1 (8-0 SEC)
Bovada Projected Over/Under Odds: 11
5Dimes Projected Over/Under Odds: 11