Kirby Smart hopes a new-look offense and another stout defense can get the Bulldogs back to the playoff
The Georgia Bulldogs are officially perennial College Football Playoff contenders. Kirby Smart led Georgia on a surprise playoff run in his second season as head coach in 2017 and to within inches of the national championship. The Bulldogs came up short of a playoff bid in each of the next two seasons but entered the SEC Championship Game in win-and-you're-in situations against both Alabama and LSU, respectively, as the No. 4 team in the CFP committee's penultimate rankings.
The 2020 season should be no different. Except, well, you know. If there's a College Football Playoff, Georgia has the talent to get there — but it's no sure thing. Here we discuss three reasons why Georgia will make it back to the CFP for the first time since 2017, as well as three reasons the Bulldogs will miss out again this year.
Three Reasons Why Georgia Will Make the College Football Playoff in 2020
1. New and improved offense
There is an obvious temptation to compare this 2020 Georgia squad to LSU's 2019 phenomenon. Like LSU, Georgia has brought in new blood on the offensive coaching staff in an attempt to modernize its schemes, be less predictable in its play-calling, and take better advantage of the talent it has accumulated under an elite recruiter, but defensive-minded, head coach.
Todd Monken returned to the college game after spending the last four years calling plays in the NFL while also mentoring young quarterbacks Jameis Winston and Baker Mayfield. Prior to his stints with the Buccaneers and Browns, Monken put together a strong resume, including stints as the head coach at Southern Miss from 2013-15 (winning 2015 Conference USA Coach of the Year honors) and as offensive coordinator at Oklahoma State from 2011-12 (a period in which the Cowboys averaged 47.2 points per game). He'll also inherit a talented, experienced transfer quarterback (well, two actually) and plenty of playmakers, led by budding superstar receiver George Pickens.
What happened at LSU was special and will be nearly impossible to replicate for any program. It's also worth noting Monken's Bucs and Browns offenses averaged a modest 22.2 points and 306.2 total yards per contest. But if the new system clicks, Georgia's new offense could become one of the most dangerous in the SEC again after taking a step back last year.
2. Same great defense
Georgia led the nation in scoring defense (12.6 points allowed per game) and rushing defense (74.6 yards allowed per contest) last year and ranked third overall, having surrendered an SEC-best 275.7 total yards on average. But it wasn't just traditional statistics in which the Dawgs excelled: Georgia allowed 0.189 points per play, 5.6 yards per pass attempt, and 0.993 points per possession — which also led all FBS units — and ranked No. 2 with an 82.4 percent stop rate and 4.29 yards allowed per play. The Dawgs ranked third in the country with an average of 1.06 points surrendered per drive.
The Bulldogs also welcome back eight starters from last year's highly decorated unit, spread evenly through the three levels of the unit, so no position is left to rely heavily on inexperienced players. Plus, the way Smart and his coaching staff rotates has helped Georgia build depth, and the talent on hand stacks up well against anyone in college football. Don't be surprised if the Dawgs finish atop the national leaderboards in several defensive categories again in 2020.
3. Impact newcomers
The headliner is Jamie Newman, who projects to replace Jake Fromm at quarterback after passing for 3,951 yards and running for 821 while accounting for 45 total touchdowns combined at Wake Forest over the last two seasons. But Newman isn't the only newcomer expected to make an immediate impact; he'll have to beat out another new face, former five-star USC starter JT Daniels, who was granted immediate eligibility this summer. Florida State grad transfer Tre' McKitty should also slide into the starting role at tight end.
Furthermore, Georgia landed the No. 1 recruiting class in the country in the 2020 cycle, according to 247Sports, and several members of that elite group could push for early playing time, even starting jobs. Among the best bets to see the field right away are cornerback Kelee Ringo, offensive tackle Broderick Jones (assuming he recovers quickly from a leg injury suffered in a July motor accident), athlete/tight end Darnell Washington, defensive lineman Jalen Carter, and receivers Marcus Rosemy, Arian Smith, and Jermaine Burton. Ringo, Washington, and Jones were consensus five-star signees ranked among the top 25 players nationally. Freshman kicker Jared Zirkel should also get the first crack at replacing All-American Rodrigo Blankenship.
Three Reasons Why Georgia Won't Make the College Football Playoff in 2020
1. Offensive line
Sure, LSU won the Joe Moore Award in 2019, but an argument could be made Georgia actually had the best offensive line in the nation. Or at least the most talented. All-American left tackle Andrew Thomas was selected No. 4 overall in the 2020 NFL Draft, and fellow bookend Isaiah Wilson joined him in the first round at No. 29. Solomon Kindley was also drafted, going No. 111 overall in the fourth.
Trey Hill returns as one of the best centers in college football. The problem, of course, is Georgia lost four excellent offensive linemen from last year's squad — all of whom had eligibility to return to Athens in 2020. Making matters worse, 18-game starter Cade Mays opted to transfer to division rival Tennessee. All told, Georgia must replace 115 career starts up front. Let's also not forget Sam Pittman is now the head coach at Arkansas, projected starting left guard Justin Shaffer missed a chunk of the 2019 season with a neck injury, right guard Ben Cleveland was ineligible for the Sugar Bowl because of an academic issue, and Jones' status is still uncertain. Inexperience and uncertainty have turned the strength of the 2019 offense into Georgia’s biggest potential weakness entering the 2020 season.
2. Lack of havoc
There was a lot of talk among the Georgia coaching staff about creating more havoc in 2019. Havoc rate, as coined by college football analytics guru Bill Connelly, is the percentage of plays in which a defense records a tackle for loss (including sacks), defends a pass (by forcing an interception or pass break-up), or forced fumble. The Bulldogs ranked No. 41 nationally with a 20.67 percent havoc rate — a relative weak spot compared to the stinginess we saw in terms of yards and points allowed.
A major issue was Georgia's meager eight interceptions in 532 pass attempts (including sacks), which works out to a 1.5 percent interception rate that ranked 119th nationally. The unit also ranked 81st in sack rate, having brought down the quarterback on just 5.83 percent of opponents' pass plays. If the Dawgs are to win the SEC and/or contend for a playoff spot, the defense must put more pressure on its opponents to create more turnovers and impact plays.
3. The obvious
We'll try to avoid dwelling too much on the most obvious reason Georgia might miss the College Football Playoff: because of the COVID-19 pandemic, there may not be a playoff in 2020. There's still time for the college football season to be shut down before it even starts (much like Georgia's spring practice), or for it to end prematurely (like we saw with the NCAA Tournament in March). Even if the season goes on as planned, outbreaks could force games to be canceled, or for teams to field patchwork lineups due to testing protocols, quarantine rules, or any number of unknown factors. Some athletes may opt out — and understandably so.
On July 29, the New York Times reported that "more than 6,300 coronavirus cases have been linked to U.S. colleges." The University of Georgia accounted for 390 of them, which marked the third-most nationally. That's... not great, especially since (as of now) UGA still plans to hold in-person classes this fall.
We haven't even mentioned the schedule yet, but Georgia is slated to travel to Tuscaloosa to face Alabama on Sept. 19. Home-field advantage may not be as important in 2020 as in previous years (depending on if, or how many, fans are allowed to enter stadiums this fall), but the Crimson Tide is likely to be favored nonetheless. As a result, the margin of error for the Bulldogs to make it back to the SEC Championship Game will narrow slightly compared to the last few seasons. Plus, Florida is a worthy challenger — if not the preseason favorite — in the division. We've yet to see a two-loss team qualify for the playoff, and with the Big Ten and Pac-12 already announcing a move to conference-only schedules in 2020, teams like USC, Oregon, and potentially Penn State and Wisconsin (one of whom could join conference favorite Ohio State in the CFP if they survive the season with one loss), may have a clearer path than Georgia.
There are other football-specific reasons why Georgia may lack the stability needed to make it to the final four. While all but two FBS programs failed to complete spring practice, Georgia was one of 52 that failed to lace it up a single time before the shutdown. SEC rivals such as Alabama, Auburn, and Florida were similarly impacted, but Georgia's coaching and schematic changes on offense and the need to break in both a new system and starting quarterback are unique among that group of contenders. Also, relying on a freshman kicker is always tricky. And, can Zamir White or James Cook replace D'Andre Swift's production at running back? Will Pickens stay out of the doghouse, and if so, will another consistent playmaker emerge alongside him?
Georgia should absolutely be considered a preseason College Football Playoff contender. The Bulldogs have a proven track record under Kirby Smart and have the talent to beat any team on the schedule. If the offense takes even a medium step forward, the Dawgs could make another run at a national title. But with so much uncertainty, both on the field and off, it seems more likely than not Georgia won't be a playoff team in 2020.