Kirby Smart and the Bulldogs have more than enough talent to get back to the playoff
The Georgia Bulldogs came about as close to winning a national championship as a football team can without actually putting the trophy in the case.
The deflating overtime loss to Alabama robbed Georgia fans of relief from decades' worth of frustration rooted in a national title drought that dates back to the days of Vince Dooley and Herschel Walker.
But if Georgia is as good as many think it will be under Kirby Smart, the Bulldogs will (and must) pick up the pieces and press on in 2018.
And though key contributors to last year’s team, such as Roquan Smith, Sony Michel and Nick Chubb have moved on to the NFL, there are still championship-caliber pieces in place for another run at history.
We examine the best arguments for and against the Bulldogs returning to the playoff in 2018:
Three Reasons Why Georgia Will Make it to the College Football Playoff in 2018
1. Kirby Smart really might be Nick Saban 2.0
Nick Saban is a “once-in-a-generation” type of coach. But at 66 years old, his career is likely on the “back nine” of the golf course.
The question has been asked: Who is next in the lineage of great college football coaches? We may already have our answer in Smart.
Sure, Saban may have rode the left arm of freshman quarterback Tua Tagovailoa to a come-from-behind victory to shatter Smart’s national title dreams in overtime back in January. But don’t let that distract you from the fact that Smart was standing there as the SEC champion going blow-for-blow with his former mentor just two years after leaving his side. That’s an outstanding accomplishment.
Smart stayed in Tuscaloosa as Saban’s defensive coordinator for nearly a decade, waiting for just the right situation for his first head-coaching gig and taking copious notes from his time under a legend. As his second season in Athens showed, Georgia is the perfect fit for the former Bulldogs defensive back. Smart has the keys to one of the nation’s premier programs, and he’s coaching, recruiting and competing at elite levels with an intensity that may only be matched in Tuscaloosa.
It is Kirby’s time, and 2017 was just the beginning.
2. With solid starters set to return at QB and WR, Georgia is poised to reload at RB
Georgia loses the services of both Nick Chubb and Sony Michel at the running back position after years of top-shelf production from the pair of top-shelf NFL draft picks. That’d be a major concern for most programs, but the Bulldogs actually are in decent shape to continue the momentum from a ground game that ranked first in the SEC and ninth nationally with 258.4 rushing yards per game in 2017.
Sophomore D’Andre Swift pushed his way into the discussion for playing time last season with 7.6 yards per carry on 81 attempts as a freshman, and could be poised to be a true breakout star. Juniors Elijah Holyfield and Brian Herrien have shown flashes of exciting skill in limited playing time as well. Oh, and there’s the freshmen. Five-star Zamir White, who is working his way back from an ACL injury, is joined by four-star James Cook (younger brother of Minnesota Vikings star Dalvin Cook) in a loaded 2018 class for the Bulldogs.
From a production standpoint, it’s possible that fans hardly even notice the all-time great duo is gone.
3. Non-conference cupcakes and one key swing game at home make the schedule seem very manageable
With all due respect to Austin Peay, Middle Tennessee and UMass, Georgia has a trio of non-conference home games that present very little danger. The Bulldogs’ rivalry game against Georgia Tech always adds some spice to the end of the regular season, but Georgia really should be able to count on that being a home win as well this season after a comfortable 38-7 win at Georgia Tech last fall.
Clearing the out-of-conference slate at 4-0 is a big part of the battle, but perhaps the most important schedule perk that could help a potential repeat playoff appearance is that Georgia will not be required to make a trip to Jordan-Hare Stadium, where it lost 40-17 to Auburn last November. Georgia has won the last five games in the series played at Sanford Stadium, which likely puts the weight on Gus Malzahn’s squad to find a way to grab a road win in the series.
Three Reasons Why Georgia Will Not Make the College Football Playoff in 2018
1. Jake Fromm suffered an offseason injury and may have played over his head in 2017
Raise your hand if last summer you predicted that Fromm (above, right), an incoming freshman, would permanently unseat highly-regarded starting quarterback Jacob Eason and lead the Bulldogs to a SEC championship and into overtime of the College Football Playoff national title game.
If we’re all being honest, there likely aren’t many hands in the air right now. And maybe that’s the problem.
Fromm, who broke his non-throwing hand during an unfortunate boating accident in July, was asked to minimize mistakes and let his playmakers roam wild on a loaded team last season. But what happens when the onus is on Fromm to create plays of his own with five-star quarterback Justin Fields breathing down his neck in anticipation of playing time?
Fromm appears to be up for the task, but just a few clunkers would be enough to leave Georgia out of the playoff picture this time around.
2. The loss of Roquan Smith and other key defenders may be too much to overcome
Rarely does one man mean so much to an entire defensive unit, but it’s safe to say that former Bulldogs linebacker Roquan Smith (137 tackles and 6.5 sacks in 2017) was the heart and soul of the SEC champion Bulldogs last year.
He’s gone, along with the rest of the starting linebackers from a year ago. Gone, too, are Lorenzo Carter (61 tackles, 17 quarterback hurries in 2017), Dominick Sanders (four interceptions) and former five-star defensive lineman Trenton Thompson.
Will Georgia be able to replicate defensive numbers that ranked sixth in the nation in both points (16.4 per game) and yards (294.9) allowed without them? The answer to that question may determine whether the Bulldogs are in playoff contention once November rolls around.
3. The rise of South Carolina and potential return to prominence for Florida could cause SEC East-related issues
Circle Sept. 8 on the calendar. It’s the date the Bulldogs roll into Williams-Brice Stadium to open conference play against a Gamecocks team that finished as the runner-up in the SEC East last season.
Will Muschamp returns many key pieces from a nine-win team and may have the talent to ambush Georgia in a game that could tilt the balance of the SEC East as early as Week 2.
Meanwhile, in Gainesville, new Gators head coach Dan Mullen is working on rehabbing a Florida team that won back-to-back SEC East titles in 2015 and '16 before crashing and burning with a 4-7 record in 2017. There are quarterback questions here, but there’s also more than enough talent on the roster for Mullen to have the Gators right back in position to make a run at Georgia in Jacksonville on Oct. 27. After all, Florida has won three of the last four in that series.
Finally, don’t sleep on a Sept. 22 trip to Missouri, where the Bulldogs narrowly escaped with a last-second, 28-27 victory in their last trip to Faurot Field in 2016. The Tigers can score points with the best in the country.
Returning to the College Football Playoff in consecutive seasons isn’t easy, but Kirby Smart appears to be in the midst of laying the groundwork for a potential dynasty in Athens.
Winning at least three out of four games against Auburn, Florida, South Carolina and LSU should put the Bulldogs in a strong position to repeat as SEC East champions. While that’s no guarantee for a return to the playoff, the SEC did break the seal on being a “two-bid” league in 2017 when both Alabama and Georgia qualified.
Both teams are near-consensus top-four preseason picks, which could help nudge the committee along if they’re pressed to again make the decision to make the SEC a two-bid league.
If Fromm continues an upward trajectory and the Bulldogs' defense repeats as one of the nation’s stingiest again in 2018, there’s little reason to argue against a return to the College Football Playoff.
Athlon’s Projected Final Ranking: 3
Athlon’s Projected Final Record: 12-1 (8-0 SEC)
Bovada Projected Over/Under Odds: 10.5
5 Dimes Over/Under Odds: 10.5
-- Written by Nick Cole, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and has spent the previous seven years covering SEC football for SEC Country, Saturday Down South and The Tennessean. Follow him on Twitter @NickColeSports.