I’ve saved this Matt Hinton post from Monday to share with you, because it’s such a perfect summation of where I’m at assessing Georgia’s chances in 2017, and I wasn’t quite ready to write about that. I’m not going to re-post everything he wrote, because you ought to hit the link and read what he came up with in its entirety, but his start…
Backing Into the Red and Black. I honestly didn’t see this coming, but … well, I guess it’s official: I’m on the Georgia bandwagon?
It wasn’t up to me. Every year, I put together a set of national rankings for every FBS team (we’re up to 130 of them now) based on five broad categories — Recent History, Talent/Recruiting, Experience, Offensive Production and Defensive Production; each category consists of three subcategories based on criteria like winning percentage, recruiting rankings, returning starts, etc. The upshot is that none of the results necessarily reflects my off-the-cuff conclusion when I’m eyeballing a depth chart.
So what to make of the fact that, after taking schedules into account, my foolproof system has pegged Georgia — an inconsistent program five years removed from its last division title, coming off an uninspiring, 8-5 finish in 2016 — not only as the runaway favorite to win the SEC East, but as a borderline Playoff contender? No other result at the top of my rankings was nearly as bold compared to the preseason consensus among other outlets, almost none of which project Georgia in the top 10. Am I prepared to defend UGA as a burgeoning elite? Really?
… and his finish…
… in much larger part it’s because Georgia’s pattern of underachieving over the past decade has made the Bulldogs reflexively hard to trust. Obviously Georgia has potential. But what distinguishes this team from the equally talented teams that finished unranked three of the past four years? From the outfit that lost to Ole Miss, Vanderbilt and Georgia Tech last year, and only narrowly survived scares from Missouri, Kentucky and Nicholls State?
The first step in answering those questions would be laying a solid, routine-looking whooping on the Mountaineers this weekend, where Georgia is a two-touchdown favorite. It’s still a long way from there to Atlanta in early December, but if the long-term goal is going to become a reality then serving notice that at least the 2017 edition won’t make a habit of playing down to the competition would be a very good start.
… just flat out nail everything I think and feel about this year’s team.
From a logical, intellectual perspective, there are a ton of positives about Georgia — returning experience on defense and at running back, which happen to be two of the most important areas for a team to prosper in the SEC; the best talent base in the division; a coaching staff (starting with the head coach) with a year together under their collective belts; a talent influx over the last two seasons that should help address special teams shortcomings; a schedule that isn’t too daunting (i.e., no Alabama) — that, combined with issues plaguing the key divisional rivals, make me think a 10-2 regular season and a SECCG berth are anything but far-fetched.
Then, emotionally, I remember all the disappointments that have been synonymous with Georgia football — not just last year’s embarrassments against Nicholls and Ole Miss, but flops against Tennessee in ’04 and ’07 that cost them trips to Atlanta; random, inexplicable losses to Vanderbilt; losing two of the last three games to Georgia Tech for no good reason; and, of course, Richt’s last two Cocktail Party debacles — and I can’t avoid the nagging feeling Georgia is still a program that can’t get out of the way of its own shadow. Not only that, but to believe Georgia’s on the verge of a great leap, I have to put an uncomfortable amount of faith in Kirby Smart’s capacity for growth in his second year on the job. When my heart ponders that, it sees 2017 coming out much the same as the previous four seasons have gone.
I believe I’ve mentioned this before, but I’m in a strange place with this. Normally it’s my heart that’s more optimistic than my head, but not this year.
In the end, it boils down to a simple question: does Georgia finally have its shit together in 2017? I wish I could tell you I knew for sure either way, but I don’t. However, I agree with Matt that we’re going to learn a lot from the opener, more than we normally would from watching this team start out against a mid-major program, which, lest we lose sight of Appalachian State’s Sun Belt membership because of what happened ten years ago, is the case. (Lest we also forget, ASU was a team Georgia demolished the last time the two squared off in 2013.)
On Saturday, Georgia doesn’t have to beat the Mountaineers by 39 points to indicate a corner’s being turned (not that I’d complain if that were to happen). But it does have to show noticeable improvement in certain key areas to convince me that the coaches and players have at least located the corner and figured out how navigate it. Mainly that would stem from controlling a game the way an SEC power playing a mid-major squad should control a game.
You don’t have to be an analytic genius to know what areas of the program have to step up to meet that standard of play in the opener. We’ve certainly discussed them ad nauseam here over the course of the preseason. I’m sure the coaches and players have, too. If you’re Georgia, talking’s been the easy part.
One game does not a season make, of course. A solid opening win is nothing more than a good start. If things really are different this year, then that means we’ll see a team capable of sustaining good play from week to week. In that regard, Notre Dame makes for a capable test. Leave South Bend with a win and I expect the program will begin seeing a higher level of national respect. The two games that follow next (Samford and Mississippi State) are winnable ones.
Which brings me to what from here appears to me to be the key game of the season. It’s not Florida, although that likely will be a pivotal game in terms of winning the East. It’s Tennessee. A Georgia team riding high at 4-0 and a probable top ten ranking is the kind of Georgia team that’s gone up against the Vols in other seasons with high expectations only to spit the bit. If this really is a different kind of year, that won’t happen. That can’t happen.
We’ll know what kind of team we’ve got and we’ll know what kind of program Kirby is building after the Tennessee game. Right now I’ll split the baby to say we’re looking at a nine-win regular season and a divisional battle that won’t be settled until the Auburn game. But I reserve the right to change my mind after Knoxville. And, man, do I want to.