Our ranking: No. 13 GEORGIA
Coach: Kirby Smart (8-5, entering second season; 8-5 overall)
2016 record: 8-5 overall, 4-4 Southeastern Conference; tied for second in East Division
Look back: The Bulldogs got off to a shaky 3-0 start under first-year coach Kirby Smart, Alabama coach Nick Saban’s defensive coordinator during four national championships. Wins included a 26-24 decision at home against overmatched Nicholls State and a one-point victory at rebuilding Missouri.
A week later, a 45-14 loss to Ole Miss exposed Smart’s defense and raised questions about whether the former Bulldog safety was better suited to be an assistant coach. To Smart’s credit, he and his staff simplified their scheme, but the Bulldogs still would drop three of their next four games, including a 24-10 loss to SEC East rival Florida.
Smart’s team would win three of five games to close the season, culminating with a 31-23 win over TCU in the Music City Bowl. It was not the final destination many envisioned when the school replaced longtime coach Mark Richt with a Saban disciple.
Smart would quell his critics with a recruiting haul that ranked third nationally and featured 20 five- and four-star recruits. The rest of the seven-team SEC East combined to ink 26.
Offensive starters lost: 6
Defensive starters returning: 11
Defensive starters lost: 0
Key losses: WR/PR Isaiah McKenzie, C Brandon Kublanow, T Greg Pyke, DB Maurice Smith, QB/P Brice Ramsey
Top returnees: QB Jacob Eason, RB Nick Chubb, RB Sony Michel, TE Isaac Nauta, LB Roquan Smith, LB Natrez Patrick, LB Lorenzo Carter, S Dominick Sanders
Strengths: The return of running backs Nick Chubb and Sony Michel for their senior seasons was a welcome surprise. Chubb looks to regain his 2014-15 form — he averaged 7.4 yards a carry — prior to a knee injury that lingered into last season. Michel is expected to have an expanded role, lining up either at tailback, Wildcat quarterback or slot receiver.
Meanwhile, sophomore QB Jacob Eason looks to smooth out the rough edges and develop the consistency to match his talent. The nation’s top QB recruit in 2016, Eason suffered expected growing pains, but some also questioned his focus. The 19-year-old did receive favorable reviews during spring practices and at 6-foot-5, 235 pounds possesses considerable physical tools. Sophomore Issac Nauta (29 catches, three scores in 2016) could be the SEC’s top tight end and Eason’s top target.
Defensively, the Bulldogs are stacked, returning all 11 starters. Roquan Smith, Natrez Smith and Lorenzo Carter form arguably to nation’s top linebacking unit. Smith and Patrick combined for 154 stops in 2016, while Carter tied for the team lead with five sacks. Behind them is an experienced secondary led by All-SEC senior S Dominick Sanders, who has 12 career interceptions, and senior CB Malkom Parrish, who led the 2016 Dawgs with 11 passes defended.
Weaknesses: The Bulldogs’ offensive line could be the key to Smart’s second season. Already a weak link a season ago, the unit now must replace two three-year starters (C Brandon Kublanow and OT Greg Pyke). Senior LT Isaiah Wynn, a two-year starter, is the leader of a unit that could start two freshmen.
Georgia’s wide receivers also are on the spot this season. Terry Godwin caught 38 passes, but no touchdowns in 2016. At 5-foot-11, the junior does not fit the profile of a No. 1 receiver. Freshman Jeremiah Holloman (6-1, 195) and 2016 junior college transfer Javon Wims (6-4, 215) need to emerge quickly.
The Bulldogs face a tall order replacing PR Isaiah McKenzie, the school record-holder with five touchdowns.
Outlook: Smart enters his second season with much to prove after replacing Richt and winning two fewer games than Georgia did in 2015. But Smart’s program is positioned to take a nice step forward and is favored to win the SEC East. Eason is the league’s most promising young quarterback, Chubb and Michel from the SEC’s top running back tandem and the defense has the talent to dominate. Besides the Florida game, early road games against Notre Dame and Tennessee and November visits to Auburn and Georgia Tech will make or break the season.