1. Favorable schedule: If you thought Georgia’s 2017 schedule was easy, take a look at 2018.
The Bulldogs open against Austin Peay on Sept. 1, beginning what many will consider a soft home slate: Middle Tennessee, Tennessee, Vanderbilt, Auburn, UMass, Georgia Tech. They travel to South Carolina, Missouri, LSU, Kentucky and Jacksonville for the Florida game.
Georgia’s two SEC West opponents present the toughest task. Auburn returns much of its group, including quarterback Jarrett Stidham, and will be angry after coming up short in the conference championship.
LSU and Georgia haven’t met since 2013, when the Bulldogs won a 44-41 shootout in Athens. The Tigers aren’t as formidable as they were then, but they should be equal to the next-best SEC East opponent.
Counterpoint: In reality, you can’t know how easy or difficult a schedule is until the games are played.
Smart’s first season had a fairly easy looking lineup. But Georgia ended up losing at Ole Miss in embarrassing fashion, lost to Tennessee on a hail mary, got stunned by Vanderbilt at home, bullied by Florida and upset by Georgia Tech.
The playoffs are now the priority in Athens, meaning in two seasons Smart has set a new standard. But one upset coupled with an average schedule could make things complicated. The Bulldogs will get everybody’s best – they better be ready for it.
2. Running game: Georgia has a formula and it’s sticking to it: Run the ball.
D’Andre Swift has an opportunity in front of him after playing third fiddle all last season. The freshman had 618 yards on 81 attempts and will now have the chance for his own breakout year.
Swift was a heralded recruit for his running and pass catching skills. He’s more effective in the passing game than Nick Chubb was, while giving the team some familiarity in his similarities to Sony Michel.
Behind Swift will be Elijah Holyfield and Brian Herrien. The team landed the lauded James Cook, Vikings running back Dalvin Cook’s brother, in this recruiting cycle. To add to their embarrassment of riches is Zamir White, a top recruit from a season ago who sat the season out injured.
Counterpoint: You don’t just replace Chubb and Michel.
Those are the second and third-leading rushers in school history. Both were renowned for their play and leadership. They turned away millions to come back to school and chase a championship.
That’s not to say Swift or any of the others cannot leave with a legacy, but what that duo did was unprecedented. Through injuries, different coaches, different linemen, different quarterbacks, they produced.
Georgia’s ground game is its lifeblood. If it declines even slightly with the losses of Chubb and Michel, it makes the team more vulnerable.
3. Sophomore Fromm: Jake Fromm is a hero far beyond Warner Robins.
The true freshman broke Georgia’s title-game appearance drought. He looked calm through adversity, going toe-to-toe with a Heisman winner in the Rose Bowl and carving an Alabama defense starting more high-round NFL picks than not.
Fromm could be the best Georgia quarterback in a long, long time. And he’s going to keep getting better. That alone should be reason for optimism.
Counterpoint: But will he keep getting better? That’s an assumption many made with the man Fromm supplanted at quarterback.
That’s not to compare Fromm to Jacob Eason, but it shows you never quite know. Sometimes quarterbacks appear primed for a step forward only to plateau or regress.
With the loss of his two running backs and Javon Wims, Fromm will have to generate more on his own. But there’s a possibility he disappoints.
Fromm could get injured. Top recruit Justin Fields could put a higher-than-usual presser on him each day in practice. If Fromm has a bad day, and fans call for Fields, that could affect him moving forward.
Fromm has proven he can handle much of what’s thrown at him. But it was only one season in which he had all-time great backs to lean on. While it appears he’s the next great thing, nothing is guaranteed.
4. Championship experience: For 35 years, the Bulldogs hadn’t competed on the big stage.
They have now. In fact, they know what it’s like to lead in overtime in a championship. They know how to win a conference. They know how to obliterate rivals. They know how to maximize talent.
The experience unquestionably helps. Smart can sell his players on the motivation of returning to that platform and finishing the job.
Counterpoint: They know what it’s like to see all their hard work result in coming up short. They know what it’s like to give your all and it still not be good enough. They know what it’s like to have a 20-7 lead in the biggest game of their lives and lose.
This is all about perspective. Some could see that as motivation, some may argue it’s a reason for 2018 to underwhelm.
Nick Saban’s Crimson Tide lost the 2016 title game in heartbreak, only to return a year later and come out on the other end.
The College Football Playoff has showed that top tier schools – Alabama, Clemson, Ohio State – are always in the running until the very end. If Georgia has taken the next step as many believe, they’ll be right there too.
It’ll be a true litmus test as to where UGA is as a program.
5. Defensive talent: The Bulldogs had the country’s sixth best defense in 2017. Smart and defensive coordinator Mel Tucker deserve applause for getting the most out of an experienced group while sprinkling in youth.
Defensive end Jonathan Ledbetter returns after a breakout junior year, while David Marshall and Malik Herring will also help set the edge. Trenton Thompson’s decision on the draft will be important for the interior.
The linebacker group will have several new names to watch, and that’s assuming Natrez Patrick’s personal troubles are behind him and he returns.
Tyrique McGhee and Deangelo Gibbs should have a bigger role in the secondary. Deandre Baker is expected to return as a starting cornerback, and J.R. Reid proved to be exciting. But most of the secondary will be open.
It’s a lot of change, but Georgia has the talent to make it less painful.
Counterpoint: Georgia will lose linebackers Lorenzo Carter, Reggie Carter, Davin Bellamy and likely Roquan Smith, who’s ticketed for the top 10 in April’s NFL draft.
Additionally, John Atkins will be hard to replace in the interior. Aaron Davis, Malkom Parrish and Dominick Sanders leave the secondary.
That’s not just losing talent; it’s losing some crucial leadership.
Before the season, one of Georgia’s selling points was a veteran group hungry to win. The story before next will be how quickly new players can find their footing.