Head coach: Kirby Smart, 4th year (32-10 overall)
2018 record: 11-3
Returning starters: 17 (8 on offense, 8 on defense, kicker)
After an 8-5 start in 2016, Kirby Smart and the Bulldogs enter the 2019 season with a 24-5 record over the last two years. With 16 starters returning, including junior quarterback Jake Fromm, it’s safe to say that there are big expectations in Athens.
The Tennessee Volunteers have been outscored 79-12 in the last two meetings and it won’t get any easier this year. Georgia gets three cupcakes before facing off against the Notre Dame Irish.
The Bulldogs are then rewarded with a bye week after their hard work. Guess who they get to play right afterward?
Yep. The Vols. At least the game is in Knoxville.
Regardless of the circumstance, this will be a huge game for Tennessee, as they play the Florida Gators the week before.
How does Georgia stack up in Neyland Stadium on October 5th? Let’s find out.
Coaching: Even if you’ve half-payed attention to college football, you know who Kirby Smart is and what he is all about.
But in case you don't know, I’ll elaborate just this once.
Smart comes from the Nick Saban tree. He was the defensive coordinator for the Alabama Crimson Tide for nine years. Mark Richt was fired after the 2015 season and Smart shuffled right on in and took his spot.
2016 saw the Dawgs finish with an 8-5 record, as mentioned earlier. But Smart and co. were able to win the 2017 SEC Championship and led at halftime during the national championship game before losing in overtime to Tua Tagovailoa and the Crimson Tide.
But, there’s new blood when it comes to Smart’s staff, especially at the coordinator position.
James Coley will take over for Jim Chaney - Tennessee’s new offensive coordinator - in 2019. He was the co-offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach for Georgia last year, so there is familiarity with Coley and how Georgia does things on offense.
The key with Coley is his relationship with Fromm. Georgia’s third-year quarterback will be instrumental to the team’s success in 2019 and Coley will play a big role in how he develops.
It’s the same song on defense with Dan Lanning taking over for Mel Tucker. Lanning coached Georgia’s outside linebackers in 2018. Before that, he coached inside linebackers and served as recruiting coordinator at the University of Memphis for two years.
Outside of Smart, the only coach out of the three major areas (offense, defense, special teams) to return is special teams coach Dan Fountain. Fountain was hired in 2018 and helped Mecole Hardman lead the SEC in punt return yardage. Hardman also earned a first team All-American nod for his return skills, as well.
There will likely be some growing pains with the new coordinators, but as long as Smart is at the helm, Georgia fans should feel pretty good about this season.
Offense: Outside of the receiving corps, the Bulldogs didn’t lose much on offense.
That’s scary to think about considering this was a team that finished third in the country in OFEI, according to Football Outsiders.
Back are Fromm, D’Andre Swift, and four of the five starting offensive linemen from last year. Riley Ridley, Mecole Hardman, and Terry Godwin (they combined for 101 of the team’s 242 catches) are gone, but Jeremiah Holloman had a strong campaign and 5-star freshman George Pickens and 4-star freshman Dominick Blaylock should help ease the pain.
As mentioned earlier, Swift, a 1,000 yard rusher from last season, will start in the backfield. He’s a very valuable weapon in the passing game, evidenced by his 35 catches a year ago, which was good for third-best on the team.
Isaac Nauata is a very underrated option and doesn’t get a lot of the attention that he deserves. He finished last year with a 30/430/3 line, good for 14.3 yards per reception. To put it into context, Tennessee’s tight ends combined for 22 catches, 225 yards, and three touchdowns.
And let’s not forget Eli Wolf, the transfer from Tennessee himself.
I hate to continue to repeat myself, but the offensive line returns four of five starters from last season and added depth through the 2019 class with 5-star center Clay Webb and 4-star tackles Xavier Truss and Warren McClendon.
Don’t expect this offense to slow down anytime soon.
Defense: The Bulldogs’ defense took a dip in 2018, falling from fourth in DFEI in 2017 to 11th in 2018, but that’s to be expected when two players are drafted in the first three rounds, including Roquan Smith, who was a top-10 pick in the NFL Draft.
It wasn’t a steep fall, however, and Georgia looks to be loaded again this year. Not only do eight starters return from last year, but four of the Bulldogs’ top seven players in the 2019 class are defensive players. The top three, OLB Nolan Smith, OLB Nakobe Dean, and defensive tackle Travon Walker should find themselves on the field early and often this season.
But that’s not because Georgia is lacking talent in those places. The defensive line isn’t spectacular, but should be deep enough to make a difference - especially later on in games. If David Marshall and Jordan Davis live up to their potential, then this group could actually turn into something special.
There is a ton of youth in the linebacking corps with eight underclassmen playing different positions. Youth can be a good thing though, and with Smart’s “create chaos” playing style, he should have no problem working these kids up and getting them ready to play.
Smith and Dean will man the SAM and WILL positions, although the amount of playing time isn’t quite certain right now. Both should make an impact at some point in the season, though.
Don’t count out upperclassmen Jermaine Johnson and Tae Crowder, either. Both players will have integral roles as the season goes on.
The secondary will be missing four-year player Deandre Baker, but the cupboard is far from bare. Tyson Campbell will man one side of the field and while the other side is still up for grabs, it will be a tough decision as a quartet of 4-star players in Mark Webb, Eric Stokes, Tyrique Stevenson, and DJ Daniel all battle it out for the starting spot.
Safety is in great hands with the return of Richard LeCounte and JR Reed. Smart added some more depth with 4-star recruit Lewis Cline, who can hit like a hammer.
So, just like the offense, the defense seems to just be in a state of recycling of 4- and 5-star players that just hop right on the bus and hop right off when their time is done.
Rinse and repeat.
Sigh. So this is what being a powerhouse feels like?
Outlook: SB Nation’s Bill Connelly has the Vols as (-15) point underdogs, but hey, it’s better than being a (-30) point underdog in 2018, right?
Regardless of the spread, there’s not much expectation from a win here. Unless the Vols just take off on a completely unforeseen trajectory and grow exponentially quicker in on-the-field-play than expected.
We all can dream, right?