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Friday September 1, 2023

We last left the Georgia football team celebrating a record-breaking victory over TCU for a second straight national title. It’s been an eventful offseason: it began with unthinkable tragedy which veered into scandal. There was celebration as another large group of Bulldogs headed for the NFL. There was transition and reunion as revered offensive coordinator Todd Monken left for the NFL and Mike Bobo began his second stint in the role. We’ve seen transfers out and transfers in. As we reset for another season and another title defense, this is what I’m thinking about.

1. Coming to terms with the offseason. In January the Bulldog program went from the highest of highs to the lowest of lows in the span of a few hours. A day that began with a second straight national championship fête ended with the tragic death of two members of the program. The incident opened the door to investigate everything from the program’s recruiting operation to its off-field behavior, and the fallout made its way in the NFL Draft. Each subsequent ticket or arrest added to the narrative (excessive or not) of a reckless culture.

Things have been relatively quiet as the players returned for preseason camp, and it might be tempting to view the upcoming season as an opportunity to move on. It’s not that simple. To begin with, there won’t be a #77 on the field each Saturday. The wider college football audience will be turning back to the sport for the first time since January, and we can expect studio shows and national broadcasts to mention the offseason in their coverage of the two-time champions. There are still people dealing with the human toll of the fatal crash, and the legal aftermath won’t be so tidy.

2. A different kind of title defense. A year ago Georgia, though the defending national champions, began the season ranked third. The title was a breakthrough moment that erased 40 years of frustration and established Georgia as an elite program, but they weren’t the odds-on favorite to repeat. It wasn’t necessarily a slight – few teams repeat, and Georgia’s historic 2022 draft results left a lot of personnel questions. The Dawgs were still a popular playoff pick and expected to be in the mix. It’s risible to think of the #3 team as having something to prove, but we all know how this works. Even if the uphill climb from #3 to #1 doesn’t do it for you, there were still some significant accomplishments that had eluded the 2021 team, chief among them an undefeated record and the SEC title.

The larger theme in the summer of 2022 wasn’t about repeating; it was Kirby Smart’s emphasis on continuity. “We didn’t build this program on hoping for one-year wonders,” he explained. “We built a program to be sustained.” I don’t mean to say that Georgia didn’t have a target on them last year; the whole “hunter vs. hunted” thing also came about in the summer of 2022. Though the repeat came into focus as the season unfolded the more immediate goal was proving that 2021 wasn’t a one-time flash in the pan. Georgia hadn’t even made the playoff in consecutive seasons and hadn’t won the SEC since 2017. There were new objectives on the way to a repeat.

Again Georgia opens the season as the defending national champion. The NFL Draft promoted another large group of contributors and leaders to the professional ranks. But a successful title defense seems to have done the trick as far as national perception. The Bulldogs begin 2023 in a different place than they did in 2022. They’re the consensus #1 team. They’re also defending an SEC championship and are expected to hold on to that crown. Now that we’ve seen a program replace 15 draft picks and still win a title, there’s a trust that this year’s questions can be similarly resolved.

We’ve seemed to jump right to the three-peat. Kirby Smart is right to be more concerned about complacency, and the “better never rests” motto of continuous improvement is consistent with the approach he’s used since 2016. But the three-peat has been front and center since SEC Media Days, and it seems to color every discussion about this year’s team. Yes, that might have something to do with the perception of this year’s schedule and the implication that Georgia will walk unchallenged into the postseason. Confidence is high, and so are expectations.

Right or wrong, the quest for the three-peat will hang over everything Georgia does this year. High expectations are nothing new at Georgia, but an attitude approaching title-or-bust isn’t the norm. Georgia has earned this status. I asked this time last year, “Are you able to smell the roses, or do you find the familiar nerves and worry creeping back in with the start of another season?” That still applies – I hope we’re all able to relish in this era of Georgia football. The “nerves and worry” though have transitioned from the old doom-and-gloom to a sense of foreboding that it might end. A title is always the team’s goal, but for us it shouldn’t become Gollum’s obsession with the ring. Remember – “We built a program to be sustained.”

3. What will Bobo 2.0 look like? It’s safe to say that the days of the I-formation and fullbacks are gone, but what else has changed? Bobo himself has been on quite a journey since 2014. He’s been a head coach and returned to the SEC for a couple of unsuccessful stints as offensive coordinator. He’s had to adapt to different levels of competition and talent. He’ll have more talent to work with than he’s had in nearly a decade, and while his earlier Georgia offenses had superstars like Gurley, Chubb, Stafford, and Green, Georgia is recruiting at a different level now and the overall level of talent available to Bobo might be as good as he’s had it. But with all of that talent comes extraordinary expectations. The 2019 offense that was good enough to get Georgia to 11-1 and to the SECCG was scrapped when it was exposed as noncompetitive against elite teams.

Personnel changes alone will affect how Bobo schemes the offense. Darnell Washington was an offensive tackle with receiver skills. He was an extra lineman blocking on running plays and a matchup nightmare on pass plays. Georgia has talented tight ends beyond Brock Bowers, but Washington’s skill set was unique and afforded Todd Monken the ability to run very different plays and looks without changing personnel. Stetson Bennett’s mobility became a factor that separated him from other quarterbacks and helped him maintain the starting job as he developed. Georgia didn’t call a ton of designed runs for Bennett, but he was able to extend plays and do enough damage running the ball that defenses had to respect the danger. Carson Beck might be able to scramble long enough to progress through his receivers, but we’re not likely to see the crazy (and sometimes terrifying) escapes. Georgia has a deeper group of receivers now, and the addition of a dangerous slot like Dominic Lovett means that we might see a more traditional passing offense than the 12 personnel that featured both Bowers and Washington. Georgia will always emphasize a physical running game, but a dinged-up group of tailbacks will require some creativity.

4. How will Georgia manage and develop its roster? Georgia’s starters were on the field quite a bit last season. Close games against Tennessee, Kentucky, and Missouri were 60-minute affairs. Florida’s second-half comeback kept the Dawgs from emptying the bench. Mississippi State was close at the half. Even the dominant win over Auburn was just 21-3 into the fourth quarter. The upside was that individuals like Stetson Bennett and Brock Bowers were on the field long enough to build the stats that propelled them to national recognition. The downside? Carson Beck saw action in 7 games – fewer than half of Georgia’s 2022 contests.

With the understanding that a schedule rarely turns out as expected, Georgia should be double-digit favorites in most of its regular season games. Ideally that would mean ample opportunity to get the reserves in, build experience, and manage the starters for what could be another long 15-game season. At the same time, Carson Beck needs reps with his offense. South Carolina could be an early test, but there’s no question that the difficulty picks up in October and November as Georgia gets into conference play and gets away from Sanford Stadium. There’s a lot to iron out: Beck of course, the health and rotation at tailback, roles for a fleet of young defensive backs, the pass rush, and more. First things first: Georgia has to play itself into a position to have these choices.

5. Around the team

  • Should we worry about placekicking? Jack Podlesney wasn’t called on for many game-winners since the 2020 Peach Bowl, but we saw in December how big games can come down to special teams. Georgia’s options to replace Podlesney are Jared Zirkel, a redshirt junior who has waited in the wings for three years, and true freshman Peyton Woodring. The sum total of their experience is Zirkel connecting on a 21-yard field goal at South Carolina last year.
  • Will depth at tailback lead to position changes? Yes, we know Bowers can run the ball, but he’s much more valuable and versatile doing so as a tight end. Word that receiver Dillon Bell is getting a look is interesting – he has decent speed (around 4.53/40) and had many more rushes than receptions in high school.
  • Earnest Greene steps into some big shoes as a redshirt freshman. A new left tackle will be protecting a new quarterback. The rest of the starting offensive line is proven and experienced. Depth is a little more of a concern than it has been, and Georgia has been fortunate with injuries up front. A lot seems to be riding on Greene following in the footsteps of Broderick Jones and Andrew Thomas.
  • If Georgia does have a slightly different look to its offense this year, Dominic Lovett could be the reason why. Darnell Washington’s size was a tough matchup for any pass defense, but a proven slot receiver like Lovett presents a different kind of matchup problem. Rosemy-Jacksaint, McConkey, and Lovett have years of experience and a wide range of skills between them, and then you’re able to bring in players like Arian Smith. Meanwhile Brock Bowers has to be accounted for. There’s a reason why people are excited about the Georgia passing game.
  • With dominant interior defensive linemen like Jordan Davis and Jalen Carter, we’re used to seeing pressure come from the inside. Georgia’s returning defensive linemen are experienced and disruptive in their own right. Without a clear superstar among them, will we see Georgia’s edge players take on a larger role? Chaz Chambliss was thrown into the deep end after Nolan Smith’s injury and eventually held his own. Mykel Williams emerged as a future star late last season. Marvin Jones, Jr. and Jalon Walker likewise began to stand out. Of the Georgia players left off the preseason All-SEC teams, Williams might be a name you’re likely to see on the postseason lists.
  • I was pleased to see Carson Beck do enough to earn the start early in camp and prevent any kind of nonsense drama lingering into the season.
  • The order behind Beck is less clear; I expect we’ll see both backups early in the season and get a sense of how the coaches rate them. Again, you’re balancing the need to get Carson Beck the reps to win big games later in the year with the need to develop solid experience behind him given the nontrivial chance you’ll need that experience.
  • What injuries are we keeping an eye on? Smael Mondon is an important piece in the middle of the defense, but Georgia is deep at linebacker and someone like Xavian Sorey could step in. Kamari Lassiter’s foot injury doesn’t seem to be a long-term problem but could keep him out for a few weeks. Lawson Luckie had a strong offseason, but it might be October before we see the freshman tight end. The availability of Kendall Milton and Andrew Paul at tailback could turn a thin position into a strength. Paul is returning from a serious knee injury, and Milton’s hamstrings seem to be a chronic problem. Will Ladd McConkey’s nagging back issues affect his availability at some point in the season?
  • I’m glad Arian Smith is no longer among the injured. His explosiveness singlehandedly adds a whole other layer to Georgia’s passing attack.
  • Kenny McIntosh quickly addressed my concern last year about replacing James Cook’s all-around skill. I should have known better given that Cook and McIntosh had similar receiving stats in 2021. That torch will have to be passed again, and the heir isn’t quite so obvious this year. Daijun Edwards lead returning tailbacks with 101 yards last season, but a healthy Paul could also get a look on passing plays.
  • Three of four secondary positions seem locked in, but we should see a good mix of combinations in the defensive backfield. Daylen Everette and Julian Humphrey could battle it out to replace Kelee Ringo, but Nyland Green or true freshman AJ Harris will get a look if Lassiter is sidelined for a couple of games. Veteran Tykee Smith is strong enough at Star that Javon Bullard was able to move to safety, and true freshman Joenel Aguero could be the future at that position. Bullard and Malaki Starks give Georgia its best safety duo in some time – perhaps even better than LeCounte and Reed.

6. Miscellany. Will Georgia break any records this year? Yes, there’s the three-peat (check out Seth Emerson’s trek to Minnesota that explores that history.) There’s also a little history to be made at Sanford Stadium: winning all seven home games would establish the program’s longest home winning streak. Mike Bobo returns as offensive coordinator, and his last season heading up the Bulldog offense set the program’s record for points per game (41.3 PPG in 2014.) Will he be able to top that?

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