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Post Will Georgia have a 1,000-yard rusher in 2018?

Wednesday September 19, 2018

The last time Georgia failed to produce a 1,000-yard rusher was in 2013 when Todd Gurley came up just 11 yards short after missing four games due to injury. Could it happen in 2018?

The Georgia running game is alive and well this season. The Dawgs are rushing for 272 yards per game, good for 12th in the nation. What’s unique is the distribution of carries(*). Starting tailback D’Andre Swift has just 24 carries – 8 per game. No fewer than nine players have had a carry in each game, and only once (Swift’s 12 carries at South Carolina) has a player had double-digit carries. Only one player has reached 100 yards in a game, and Holyfield did that on eight carries thanks in large part to one explosive run. When you’re winning big, you get to play a lot of people…and rest others.

Ultimately the 1,000-yard mark is an arbitrary target, and Kirby Smart won’t care so long as the team is accomplishing what it needs to on the ground. It matters a little more to fans, and I’m sure deep down even the most unselfish back aspires to say he had a 1,000-yard season. There’s a certain amount of prestige that comes with being a 1,000-yard rusher. It’s like a pitcher winning 20 games or hitting 40 home runs in baseball or reaching the 1,000-point plateau in a college basketball career.

So with a quarter of the season gone (I know…), this is how Georgia’s top rushers stand:

  1. Holyfield (200 yds)
  2. Swift (119 yds)
  3. Cook (105 yds)
  4. Robertson (95 yards)
  5. Herrien (91 yds)

Right now no one player is on pace to reach 1,000 yards. At the current rate, Holyfield would have 800 yards at the end of the regular season. Georgia would need another run to the national title game to get Holyfield to 1,000 yards.

For now, there’s no reason to expect much to change while it’s working. Some of the factors that might affect how Georgia runs the ball and who ultimately leads the team in rushing:

  • Tougher opponents. The competition ramps up over the next couple of weeks, and that could mean a couple of things. First, you’re more likely to lean on your top performers in closer games. We saw this at South Carolina where Swift had the most carries of the season. It also might mean going up against better rushing defenses. Can Georgia keep up their production using the approach that’s worked so far? Will the sweeps be as effective and explosive? Will blocking – whether on the perimeter or by the offensive line – continue to create space?
  • Injuries. It’s rare for Georgia to have its top back available all season. Swift missed time in the spring with a groin injury, and his limited duty against MTSU led to some concern. Smart said he expects the tailback group to be at “100 percent” for the Missouri game. For now we’ll just leave the Swift scare as a reminder that injuries can and probably will affect availability and yardage. On the other hand, injuries do create opportunities for other players to increase their workload.
  • The Wild Dawg. We haven’t seen too much of it this year, but we know it’s a standard part of the offense now and something that’s been worked on during preseason. Whoever lines up in that formation stands to add some yardage.
  • Explosive runs. As Holyfield showed against MTSU, one long run can give a big boost to a player’s stats. The next thing you know, you’re Sony Michel putting up 137 yards on six carries against Florida, and your totals begin to look a lot more impressive. There are several ballcarriers capable of those kinds of runs and performances.

(*) – In fact, Georgia’s distribution of carries to this point might more closely resemble that of option-style teams. Even in the lean Paul Johnson years, Tech has been able to run the ball. In five of his ten seasons in Atlanta, the Jackets didn’t have a 1,000-yard rusher.


Post Georgia 49 – MTSU 7: Are we sure this wasn’t the season opener?

Tuesday September 18, 2018

Three games in and Georgia finally had a game that felt more like a season opener. Of course Georgia’s talent advantages in speed, size, and football ability made for a lopsided and decisive outcome. From the opening kickoff though it was clear that Georgia wasn’t as sharp as it might have been in the first two games.

After the Austin Peay game I noted how clean things seemed in terms of focus. I’m sure the coaches reviewing film caught many mistakes not noticed by the fans, but Georgia had few obvious missteps two weeks ago that you’d expect from an opener. That wasn’t the case Saturday. This game opened and closed with bizarre penalties on routine special teams plays. (It wasn’t a good day to be wearing #25 on a special teams play.) Not one but two kickoffs had players offsides. Freshmen looked like….freshmen. There were operations issues like getting the right number of people on the field or lining up promptly after Cook stepped out of bounds. Both punt returners committed the sin of allowing the ball to bounce and cost the team field position – once with nearly disastrous results. Even the starting quarterback wasn’t crisp with his decisions early on.

That all could be expected for a sleepy noon game against an overmatched opponent with bigger conference games coming up. But Kirby Smart wasn’t going to accept it, and he was animated even by his own standards using every possible moment as a teaching opportunity. He jumped on both Crumpton and Hardman after their early return miscues, and Hardman responded with two of the better punt returns of the season. With Smart’s insistence that the team play to a standard rather than an opponent’s level, that reaction wasn’t surprising. It was gratifying to see leaders like Walker become animated when younger players erred. Having Smart in your ear is one thing, but it’s much better when players take it on themselves to enforce the standard. That was one of the keys to the success of 2017, and it has to continue with each change of leadership.

Hopefully a return to conference play and more stout competition can help the team refocus. In this game it was enough simply to be much more talented. If the South Carolina game was a reminder that Georgia’s running game is still very much a thing, the MTSU game was a showcase of Georgia’s weapons at receiver. The tailbacks still had their moments Saturday, especially Holyfield who became the season’s first 100-yard rusher while taking advantage of limited duty for Swift. At South Carolina, three tailbacks found the endzone. Against MTSU five receivers did. We saw receivers score on running plays, special teams, and on pass plays. Three of those receivers who scored weren’t named Hardman, Ridley, or Godwin – Simmons, Stanley, and Holloman illustrated Georgia’s mouthwatering depth on the outside.

The numbers say it was a fairly good day for the defense. They gave up just seven points, created two turnovers, and held MTSU to 288 total yards and 4.24 yards per play. As at South Carolina, the defense came up big with their backs against the wall. A punt from the Georgia endzone (and the first return yardage allowed by Georgia’s special teams all season) gave MTSU the ball at the Georgia 36. The defense snuffed out a trick play on 3rd-and-1, and Deandre Baker baited Brent Stockstill into an interception on fourth down. Baker was fantastic on that series with his recognition of the trick play on third down and then outstanding technique to force the interception. MTSU didn’t look Baker’s way much after that series.

MTSU did have success running on Georgia. The Dawgs often used dime personnel against MTSU’s spread look, and that left some room to run up the middle. MTSU piled up 158 rushing yards, only about 30 yards fewer than Georgia (if you exclude Georgia’s receiver sweeps.) Those 158 yards came at a clip of just 4.2 yards per carry though, so the Blue Raider gains on the ground came at a steady if not particularly explosive clip. They weren’t reeling off many long runs, but Georgia also wasn’t stopping many runs near or behind the line. You can chalk that up to Georgia’s personnel if you like, but Missouri’s Larry Rountree III put up 168 yards last weekend in much the same way and could prove to be trouble if Georgia focuses too much on Missouri’s passing threat.

Georgia’s done a good job all season at limiting big plays. MTSU’s spread offense doesn’t pose a huge downfield threat, but, much like Georgia, they can use the passing game as an extension of the running game and challenge defenses on the perimeter. We saw that all game, and – with one exception – Georgia did well to fight off blocks and limit the damage from those short perimeter passes. Even with one short pass turned into a 40-yard score, Georgia still limited MTSU to 130 yards passing and a plodding 4.3 yards per attempt. MTSU ran 68 plays to Georgia’s 56, but those 68 plays had to be ground out, and MTSU couldn’t string together enough of those small gains to score.

A few more things…

  • Another way in which it felt like an opener: all of the firsts we saw. Justin Fields scored his first rushing touchdown. Mecole Hardman, after so many close calls, finally broke open a return. Stanley, Holloman, and Simmons all notched their first touchdowns, and it was a treat to see all three get rewarded after multiple years with the program.
  • Speaking of Fields, any questions about his passing were answered in the third quarter. We knew he could turn a broken play into rushing yards, and his scoring run in the first half looked effortless. He looked even better in the second half. I had a great behind-the-play view of a throw across the middle to Nauta. It was pinpoint precision – anything the slightest bit behind Nauta was covered. His touchdown pass to Stanley a few plays later had similar accuracy.
  • Glad also to see Fields get the opportunity to run the 2-minute offense at the end of the first half. I appreciate Georgia’s aggressiveness to use its final timeout to set up a drive with 90 seconds left in the half in a 35-7 game. Fromm got the first snap of the series, but Fields took over after an MTSU timeout. Fields shook off a dangerous hit to the head and completed consecutive passes before scrambling for his rushing touchdown. He looked very much in control of the situation.
  • Georgia’s quarterbacks are completing over 80% on the season. That’s positive of course, but it also speaks to the difficulty level of most of the passes. Georgia isn’t attempting riskier downfield passes because, well, look at the scoreboard. There’s such a thing as being too risk-averse though, and you wonder if some of Fromm’s early indecision had to do with looking off more challenging throws. He, as he so often does, made us forget all about that with a downfield bomb to Holloman and a perfect scoring fade to Ridley.
  • Three of Georgia’s six offensive touchdowns came on third down. Overall Georgia was a crisp 7-11 on third down with two of those missed conversions coming late in the fourth quarter.
  • Kudos to Reed and Baker for forcing a key fumble in the second quarter. MTSU had strung together seven straight plays with positive yardage on their first extended drive of the game. For the second time in three drives, Georgia’s secondary ended a legitimate MTSU scoring opportunity with zero points allowed.
  • Along those lines, MTSU had the ball three times inside the Georgia 30 and came away with zero points. Georgia was a perfect six-for-six on scoring opportunities. That led to one of the larger points per scoring opportunity margins in the nation on Saturday. The big plays by Hardman and Simmons were icing on the cake, but this game was as lopsided as it was because of Georgia’s relative success converting and defending against scoring opportunities.
  • One of the more amusing things Saturday was seeing the MTSU kickoff return man start walking back to the bench even before each kickoff sailed over his head. I was curious how the wind would affect Blankenship’s touchback streak, but even Florence was made to respect the specs.
  • The clouds and breeze made conditions much more tolerable than the first two games. Hopefully that will be the last truly sweltering game we’ll see this season. I don’t think the players would mind a few more though.

Post Missouri at noon. I’ll take it.

Tuesday September 11, 2018

Since it’s a game I’ll be watching from the couch, I’m perfectly OK with a noon (11 a.m. local) start for the next road game.

Two things:

  • Though this might not be the year to care about every little edge against Tennessee, it’s still nice to know that Georgia could very well be back home by the time Tennessee-Florida kicks off.
  • Construction at Missouri this year means that visiting teams will temporarily be on the “home” side of Memorial Stadium. That puts the visitor’s bench directly in front of the Missouri student section. An earlier start time should make any crowd noise less of a factor – unless the yawns from late-arriving students prove to be a distraction.

Post Georgia 41 – South Carolina 17: They flinched first

Monday September 10, 2018

South Carolina rallied around a motto to prepare for Saturday’s critical SEC East game with Georgia. Don’t flinch first.

“Whoever flinches first is going to lose,” safety Steven Montac said. “Can’t flinch, can’t soften up. Just got to be ready to throw punches every time we’re on the field.”
Tight end Jacob August perhaps summed it up more succinctly.
“Whoever flinches first (loses) the fight,” August said.

Both teams faced an opportunity to cave in the first half. Georgia stormed out to a 14-0 lead with a score by both the offense and defense, and that might’ve been a knockout blow for many teams. To South Carolina’s credit, it wasn’t. They responded to Georgia’s second score with an 11-play drive to pull within a score and got back into the game. The Gamecocks then dealt their own blow. One of Jake Fromm’s few errant passes was picked off, and South Carolina was in business just outside of Georgia’s 30. The Bulldog defense had just been on the field for over five minutes, and the South Carolina offense seemed to have found a rhythm on its previous drive. Had they punched it in from 30 yards out, they would have weathered Georgia’s early haymaker and leveled the game with momentum of their own and a frenzied crowd behind them with more than three quarters left to play.

It might’ve been the biggest series of the game for Georgia. The defense stiffened, held the Gamecocks to just one yard on three plays to keep them out of field goal range, and broke up a fourth down pass in front of the sticks. Georgia’s offense shook off the turnover and got back on track with a field goal. The game settled into a stalemate in the second quarter, and each team had survived a major shock to the system. Neither had flinched…yet.

Georgia eventually wore down South Carolina with points on four consecutive possessions. Much like the Rose Bowl, Georgia made the opponent pay for a special teams error just before halftime. In this case it was a short punt that left Georgia with only about 30 yards to reach field goal range. The Dawgs efficiently moved downfield, and Blankenship coolly reestablished a double-digit lead. Georgia, taking full advantage of winning the coin toss, scored a touchdown to open the second half. The Dawgs posted ten points between South Carolina possessions and turned a tight seven-point lead into a menacing 17-point advantage.

South Carolina broke down on the next drive. Jeremiah Holloman started things off dragging half the South Carolina defense past the first down marker. After a few Herrien runs, a South Carolina linebacker was beaten by Herrien on a wheel route and held Georgia’s tailback to prevent a big play. Another mental mistake followed as pass coverage failed to account for a wide-open Mecole Hardman on a blitz. Holyfield finished off the drive running through token resistance, and the rout was on.

I liked what Kirk Herbstreit had to say when setting up his prediction for this game: this was the stage on which the 2018 Georgia team could move beyond 2017. Georgia doesn’t have Chubb or Michel, but the running game could still put away an SEC opponent. There’s no Roquan, but the speed across the defense is able to contain a respectable passing game. Wynn no longer anchors the offensive line, but Georgia still goes, as we found out, two deep at left tackle. You’re starting to see incredibly talented younger players like LeCounte come into their own. Baker, Walker, and Hardman are emerging (have emerged?) as stars in their own right.

Much of our trepidation about the 2018 team – and this game – had to do with continuity. Could Georgia lose so much in production and leadership from an elite team and still perform at the same level? Could Kirby Smart get another group of leaders to buy into the message of focusing on the game at hand and avoiding distractions? No one doubted Georgia’s talent level, but the Austin Peay game revealed little, and we carried all of this offseason uncertainty into a significant early road test. Had Smart really changed things, or had he, like several of his predecessors, just had everything come together for one special season? If this game was the SEC East measuring stick it was built up to be, Herbstreit might be right: we can put 2017 to bed and begin to enjoy the 2018 team that’s emerging before our eyes.

  • We had expected South Carolina to go up-tempo, and that was evident from the start. Rather than establish anything on the ground, the Gamecocks opened with five straight passes. Whether the tempo pushed South Carolina beyond their comfort zone or just early-game nerves, four of those five passes were incompletions. One should have been intercepted, and another was.
  • We also anticipated South Carolina testing Georgia deep. Though they eventually hit a deep shot for their second touchdown, Georgia coverage and pressure didn’t allow for many longer pass attempts. Only one Gamecock had a reception longer than 20 yards. I know some Georgia fans were frustrated with South Carolina’s success passing across the short middle, but without much of a running game and longer passes all but shut off by the Georgia secondary, South Carolina couldn’t string enough of those short passes together to sustain drives.
  • For the second time in two games, Georgia yielded zero return yards on punts or kickoffs. What a luxury to completely eliminate a variable from the game. Blankenship and Camarda neutralized his return threat, and that’s as important as anything Baker and the secondary accomplished against Samuel.
  • Georgia’s offensive line depth went from the abstract to the very real when Andrew Thomas went down. True freshman Cade Mays stepped into arguably the most difficult OL position. He didn’t just hold his own – the line imposed its will during the third quarter. In the not-too-distant past, an injury to the left tackle would have meant some wholesale shuffling of the line and a few prayers that things wouldn’t implode. On Saturday Georgia kept the rest of the line intact, plugged in the next tackle on the board, and soldiered on. It’s good news though that Thomas’s ankle injury doesn’t seem to be long-term.
  • The line depth wasn’t limited to the offense. Michael Barnett had one of his better games, and the rest of the line helped to render South Carolina’s running game fairly impotent. Georgia was content to rush four most of the day and drop seven into coverage to avoid big passing plays. It helped that one of those four often was Walker.
  • The education of Tyson Campbell continues. He was victimized on both South Carolina touchdowns. On the whole though, Campbell held his own. He recorded four tackles and did enough against receivers not named Deebo Samuel to keep most of the South Carolina passing game short and across the middle. He’ll get another chance to show his progress in two weeks against the Missouri passing game.
  • I’ve been tough on Holyfield and Herrien because of their importance to the long-term success of the run game. This was one of the first games in which they looked to be part of a three-(or four!) pronged attack rather than backups to Swift. Holyfield in particular ran with confidence and purpose, and Herrien’s coup de grâce was a wonderful combination of patience and blocking.
  • Georgia continues to get the ball to speedy backs and receivers in space, and it couldn’t happen without outstanding perimeter blocking. Watch Ridley on Hardman’s first long play. Watch Simmons on Hardman’s opening score of the second half. Stanley made big improvements in this area a year ago, and he’s available off the bench.
  • Are there areas for improvement even in a 24-point divisional win? Absolutely. Two stand out: first is pass blocking from the tight ends. We’d like to see them catch passes, but the majority of their work will always be blocking. It has to be more consistent. Second is pass coverage by the interior linebackers. We knew it would be a tall task to match Roquan’s skills in pass coverage, but that was an area South Carolina was able to exploit time and again. Fortunately they weren’t able to sustain many drives. These aren’t fatal flaws in the team, but they are soft spots that the few teams capable of matching up with Georgia might attack.

Post Georgia 45 – Austin Peay 0: From the lowly East endzone

Tuesday September 4, 2018

So where does this rank among the all-time hot games? Alabama 2002 and Clemson 2003 are the standard, and this felt as hot as it’s been in Sanford Stadium. Fans, vendors, and even support staff fell victim to the heat around the stadium. It’s good news that the team made it through the game unscathed, though the heat sapped a lot of energy and enthusiasm from the players. We were fortunate that the coaches had the good sense to shave five minutes off the fourth quarter before anyone else got hurt.

If there was something we can take away from a game like this, it was Georgia’s display of speed on both sides of the ball. The offense showcased its weapons: six different players and two quarterbacks were involved in the team’s six touchdowns. Two of the scores were explosive sprints by receivers: Robertson announced his presence with a 72-yard jet sweep, and Mecole Hardman ran past the Austin Peay secondary to turn a mid-range completion into a 59-yard score. James Cook was everything we heard about from camp both as a receiving threat out of the backfield and as a tailback. He might be the team’s second-best rushing option already (more on that in a second.)

We wondered for eight months how a Georgia offense would look without Nick Chubb and Sony Michel. We got a glimpse of that on Saturday. No, we didn’t see anything close to the entire offense – there was no wildcat, no special “Fields package”, or even much downfield passing. But in terms of basic identity, we saw an offense much more focused around the perimeter. The offense marched down the field with bubble screen after bubble screen, and tailbacks caught nine of the team’s 21 completions. The longest runs of the day – some by design, and some not – went to the outside.

While it was thrilling to see the speed of Georgia’s backs and receivers in space, the more conventional running game sputtered. Swift was fine, and his day ended early. Holyfield did have a nice bit of improvisation on his touchdown, and Herrien sent a charge through the crowd with a spin move on a swing pass. Still, it was a fairly unremarkable game from the tailbacks as you went down the depth chart. Some of that might be from the line dragging in the heat, but the backs didn’t do much to create the impression of a strong unit behind Swift. If anything, Cook might have looked like the second-best back if only because of his raw speed.

A shutout is always a good result for a defense regardless of the competition, but it’s also a credit to the entire team. The offense didn’t hurt itself with turnovers and stalled drives that flipped field position. Special teams did its job with touchbacks on kickoffs, deep punts, and no return yardage allowed. Until Cook’s penalty in the meaningless fourth quarter, Austin Peay’s best starting field position was its own 25. Overmatched teams aren’t going to put many drives together with that field position. Austin Peay got close with a missed field goal attempt in the first half and a failed fourth down attempt in the second half, but Georgia’s defense held.

Georgia did well to hold Austin Peay to under 100 yards rushing. The Governors feature one of the best FCS rushing offenses, and they use some option elements to test a defense’s discipline and assignments. Kirby Smart wondered how that style of offense would challenge Georgia’s young defense. “I’m not saying they’re going to come in and dominate and be able to run the ball every down on us, but I think what they can do is get explosive plays,” he explained. The defense passed that test thanks in large part to outstanding lateral speed. That speed was a big reason why Austin Peay had no run longer than 14 yards and no reception longer than 12. The secondary might be young and raw, but the speed of guys like LeCounte, Reese, Rice, Gibbs, and Campbell will have them in position to make many more plays than they don’t.

Austin Peay’s running game did expose one area of concern in the Georgia defense: a softness up front. Georgia never established much of a push from the defensive line. Georgia was able to keep those modest gains from turning into more, but matchups will only get tougher for the interior line and linebackers. It’s good to see Reed continuing his 2017 form, but it’s not necessarily a great sign to have safeties as three of your top four tacklers. Monty Rice led the front seven in tackles, and that’s encouraging, but he needs some help. I’m not as concerned about a lack of sacks – the nature of Austin Peay’s offense doesn’t give pass plays much time to develop. You had to like how active Brenton Cox was in his debut.

How young is the defense?

Seventeen defenders were credited with at least two tackles. Only five of those players were upperclassmen. Here’s how it broke down:

  • Seniors: 2
  • Juniors: 3
  • Sophomores: 7
  • Freshman: 5

Of course some of that had to do with how the game unfolded. When you’re emptying the bench in the first half, there’s going to be a lot of inexperience on the field.

Extra Points

  • It was almost unfair to see Adam Anderson out there in the fourth quarter. Emptying the bench meant playing a fresh 5* outside linebacker. His combination of speed and power was unmistakable.
  • So we have a punter, right? Camarda didn’t show any sign of jitters on his three punts, and his first drew an audible reaction from the crowd. He’ll work on placement, but for now I’ll take the cannon shot and a touchback to keep the ball from a returner like Deebo Samuel.
  • The quarterbacks weren’t asked to do much, but they executed well. Each had a near-miss: Fromm threw into tight double coverage on one of the few deeper passes, and Fields nearly had a bubble screen picked off. The risk of a defender stepping in front of one of those screens is high as we see better competition, so both quarterbacks will have to make good decisions if we continue to use that play to get the ball in the hands of receivers and tailbacks.
  • Watch Nauta and Woerner on Robertson’s touchdown run. Glad to see Nauta get his own score later in the game.

Last Thing

It struck me how clean the game was from Georgia’s perspective. It wasn’t the toughest opponent, but we’ve seen teams here and elsewhere slop around in these games. We saw few mistakes related to operations – delays, false starts, substitution penalties, or unforced timeouts. Ridley drew a couple of penalties with aggressive blocking, and Cook was involved in two big mistakes in the fourth quarter. Overall though Georgia had the appearance of a prepared and focused team. Each side of the ball has something major to work on: the offense has to establish a more consistent conventional running game, and the defensive interior must be more physical. Kirby Smart will be hammering home those points as Georgia prepares for much tougher SEC fare, and the temperature won’t be any cooler in Columbia.


Post Opening the curtain on Kirby’s second act

Saturday September 1, 2018

On Saturday it will have been 288 days since Georgia took the Sanford Stadium field, and just a few things have happened during that time. We left the Kentucky game as SEC East champions and with fond memories of an accomplished senior class. That in itself marked a successful second season for Kirby Smart. The division title was the baseline expectation for most of us, and cracking the initial playoff rankings tempted us to dream of more. Georgia had established itself as a very good team, but the Auburn loss had knocked the Dawgs out of the top 4, and Georgia was an underdog in the upcoming rematch with Auburn.

The next two months were a whirlwind that changed how we looked at the 2017 season, Kirby Smart, and the players who made it all happen. It started with a fairly lopsided dismissal of Tech in the final stop on the regular season Revenge Tour. Georgia made the plays in the SEC Championship that it hadn’t at Auburn, and a close game broke open midway through the second half. The team that had taken a nice step forward during the season were now SEC Champions, and the team that was on the outside of the playoff picture was headed for Pasadena. Georgia won its second Rose Bowl in a dramatic classic that most of us have watched on loop this summer. Within a month a team that was an underdog for the SEC title had earned its shot at the national title.

We’re all disappointed with the outcome of the title game, but Georgia stood toe-to-toe with the dominant dynasty of the past decade. If we can’t avoid measuring the progress of this program against Alabama, Georgia looked much more like a peer than the 2015 squad that didn’t belong on the same field. Georgia maintained that competitiveness into recruiting season and wrapped up the nation’s top class. That momentum doesn’t appear to be slowing any time soon.

Not many people expected Georgia to go as far as they did last season, and that’s the biggest change heading into 2018. There’s no escaping it this year. Georgia is top four in the preseason consensus. They’re favored at this point against every regular season opponent. They’re solid favorites to repeat as SEC East champs. If reaching Atlanta in December was the expectation last season, it’s the starting point for expectations this year.

Many Georgia fans aren’t comfortable with this situation. I understand – we’ve been burned more than once.

High expectations in 2000 brought down a coaching staff. The #1 ranking in 2008 didn’t last long. Georgia was the preseason #4 by consensus in 2013 but finished unranked after devastating injuries took their toll. The Dawgs have been overrated relative to the preseason consensus seven of the past ten years. Georgia’s had a habit of rocketing past their preseason ranking every ten years or so (’97: +16, ’07: +12, ’17: +14), but all that’s served to do is to build up expectations for the next year. Here we are again: a successful season in a year ending in “7” followed by a preseason ranking near the top.

So, barring a 2013-like run of injuries, what’s to stop 2018 from being another 2008? (Or, heaven forbid, another 2000?) After all, the cheery optimism we have after making a title run in 2017 is just a few setbacks away from turning into wistful bitterness at coming up just short.

One of Kirby Smart’s many jobs this year is managing those expectations within the program. It’s not as though he lacks experience in a program dealing with lofty expectations. He introduced (or borrowed) the “pressure is a privilege” line during Media Days, and it demonstrates how he plans to change Georgia’s approach to expectations. It’s not meant to be dreaded or avoided or buried in some bunker of Munson-like pessimism. It’s to be met head-on and used to set the standard for how the team prepares, practices, and performs.

Pressure might be a privilege, but it is still pressure. Georgia might be favored at this point in every game, but many projections have the Dawgs dropping a game or two in the regular season. One of the things Georgia did well last season was compartmentalizing each game. Smart made sure there was no looking ahead, reinforcing each week that no one remembers or cares who led the race at its midpoint. More importantly, those words were repeated and taken to heart by the team’s leadership. When Roquan Smith or Sony Michel were interviewed, it was as if Kirby Smart’s words were coming out of their mouths. I don’t doubt that this 2018 team has identified its leaders, and you can probably already name most of them. But it was the way those 2017 leaders became instruments of the coaches that distinguished them and will make them difficult to replace. Whether or not Georgia can play to its high standard and maintain focus each week as favorites will depend on how well the next group of leaders can reinforce from week to week the consistent messages from the coaches.

Even if things go well, Georgia’s going to find itself in some tight spots. Nearly every champion does. Georgia will head into some difficult road environments to face quality teams. They’ll be plugging inexperienced players in at key positions like cornerback. Depth isn’t where you’d like it to be at a handful of spots. Even at this high level, losses will happen. You’re going to have a quarterback scramble into his line, bobble the ball, and throw a touchdown anyway. You’re going to have an average quarterback put together the game of his life. You’ll have freak plays and more freak plays. Each loss hurts more because it only takes one to remove your postseason fate from your control. It’s tempting then to focus on the rare loss and not enjoy the wins, and I hope we can avoid that.

If you feel as though Kirby Smart has changed things around the program, why shouldn’t fans be a part of that change? Our apprehension about expectations should become a confidence. There’s a fine line between confidence and arrogance, but a certain amount of confidence in this program has been earned. I think we saw the beginnings of it last year. Georgia’s always had a strong showing at road games, but the confidence that came with “taking over” was new. The Revenge Tour gave us plenty of motivational fuel each week. Sleepy Sanford Stadium woke up, and a drab home schedule became a prime-time party.

More than one person noted that the 2017 Georgia football season was our version of the 1991 Atlanta Braves season. It wasn’t just the success, it was the novelty of so many unique experiences and accomplishments. It wasn’t quite worst-to-first, but 2017 was much more than just an SEC championship season. It was the validation for the new coach’s vision and reassurance that Georgia hadn’t made a huge mistake by blowing it all up in 2015. Now we see where that coach takes his program from here. The talent is there. The resources and support are there. I can’t wait to see what’s next.