Georgia is looking for a breakthrough in Kirby Smart’s second season in Athens. Such are expectations at a historical power that returns its starting quarterback, two talented running backs and 11 starters on defense.
The non-conference slate presents some challenges for the Bulldogs, with an opener against always-dangerous Appalachian State, a finale at rival Georgia Tech and a tough road matchup with Notre Dame in between (plus Samford). And the SEC West crossovers are never easy when Auburn is an annual matchup, and Mississippi State comes to town this year as well.
Here is how the entire Georgia schedule stacks up, ranked from easiest game to most difficult.
12. Sept. 16 vs. Samford
Samford went 7-4 last season and made the FCS playoffs. That said, these Bulldogs shouldn’t be much of a test for Georgia, even if the game is sandwiched between a trip to Notre Dame and a home game against Mississippi State.
11. Oct. 14 vs. Missouri
It’s Barry Odom’s second year at Mizzou, but it remains to be seen what he has to work with. The offense looks like it has some playmakers, but the defense has some holes to fill. Could this game end up being much tougher for Georgia than No. 11? Sure. But at a crowded bottom of the SEC East, the Tigers might be the least sure thing.
10. Nov. 4 vs. South Carolina
The Gamecocks were among the league’s biggest surprises last season, going 6-7 in Will Muschamp’s debut campaign. Muschamp appears to have a strong quarterback to work with, too, in Jake Bentley. You could easily flip-flop South Carolina with Kentucky in this spot, but Kentucky comes in the SEC finale, before rival Georgia Tech — an option team that can give even the best defenses fits on short notice.
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9. Nov. 18 vs. Kentucky
Are the Wildcats on the rise? Perhaps. Kentucky won seven games last season, nearly beat the Bulldogs and got head coach Mark Stoops a two-year extension this offseason. The ground game should be good, but the defense has to get better, which is possible given the amount of experience returning on that side of the ball.
8. Sept. 2 vs. Appalachian State
The Mountaineers have gone 21-5 over the past two seasons, and they darn near ruined Tennessee’s Thursday night opener last season, so this isn’t a game Georgia can overlook by any means, especially with a road trip to Notre Dame looming a week later.
7. Oct. 7 at Vanderbilt
The Commodores ruined Georgia’s homecoming last season, beating the Bulldogs 17-16 en route to a six-win season and Independence Bowl berth in Derek Mason’s third campaign. Vanderbilt did go 4-2 at home last year, too, and returns 1,000-yard running back Ralph Webb and several other key pieces on offense.
6. Sept. 23 vs. Mississippi State
This is a tough crossover test for Georgia, especially early in the season. (Although it does help to have a tune-up against Samford the week before.) Mississippi State returns Nick Fitzgerald under center after a breakout campaign and now has Todd Grantham running the defense, which struggled at times getting to the passer last season. We’ll see how quickly Grantham can get the unit up to speed after churning out some terrific units at Louisville.
5. Sept. 30 at Tennessee
Georgia lost a home heartbreaker to the Volunteers last season on a Hail Mary, but there is enough turnover, especially on offense, for UT to potentially be more vulnerable this season — despite back-to-back nine-win seasons and this game coming at home.
4. Nov. 25 at Georgia Tech
This game is never easy, as evidenced by the Yellow Jackets’ two wins over Georgia in the past three years. Georgia Tech is coming off a nine-win season and Paul Johnson would love nothing more than to beat an SEC team once again, after going 3-0 against the league last year. There could be plenty on the line during rivalry week for both teams.
3. Sept. 9 at Notre Dame
Perhaps this game is a bit too high, but there’s always so much intrigue around high-profile non-conference matchups, especially involving the Fighting Irish and the SEC, two entities that haven’t met in the regular season since 2005. The Irish went 4-8 last season and the pressure is on in South Bend, making this primetime Week 2 matchup all the more intriguing, considering the Dawgs are looking for a breakthrough this season.
2. Oct. 28 vs. Florida (in Jacksonville, Fla.)
The Gators have won the past two meetings, after Georgia won three in a row… after Florida won three in a row. Unpredictability is the theme when these two rivals clash in Jacksonville, Fla., and it’s anyone’s guess what will happen when the two-time defending division champs meet with the presumed division favorite this fall.
1. Nov. 11 at Auburn
Another rivalry, another bout of unpredictability. Georgia has won three straight against Auburn but three of the past four games have been decided by seven points or fewer. The Tigers are widely predicted to be among the SEC’s top teams this season after making the Sugar Bowl last year, so if they live up to the hype, Georgia will have its work cut out for it on the road.
— Written by Matt Fortuna, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and spent six seasons covering college football for ESPN.com. Fortuna’s work has been honored by the Football Writers Association of America (FWAA) and U.S. Basketball Writers Association (USBWA) seven times. Follow him on Twitter @Matt_Fortuna and like his Facebook page.