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Opponent Preview: Georgia

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Auburn’s November gets tougher with the first of two ridiculous road trips.

NCAA Football: Georgia Spring Game Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports

The Opponent Preview series continues today with the first of Auburn’s games against national title game participants. Of course, we look at the Georgia Bulldogs.

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November 2017 was one of the best months in Auburn football history, capped off by the 26-14 win over Alabama two days after Thanksgiving. However, what really catapulted the Tigers into the frenzied and inspired home-field fireworks came two weeks earlier in the first of two games against top-ranked teams.

Georgia had been rolling everyone during the lead-up to The Deep South’s Oldest Rivalry at Jordan-Hare Stadium, and it was relatively surprising to boot. Starting quarterback Jacob Eason went down with an injury in the win over App State to start the season, and backup Jake Fromm took over. He led the Bulldogs to a 20-19 win over Notre Dame in South Bend, and that was the only time someone got closer than two touchdowns to Georgia before they came to Auburn.

It came crashing down in a huge heap, as Auburn dominated the game. Georgia scored first on a Nick Chubb touchdown, but Auburn took the lead on three Daniel Carlson field goals before finally hitting paydirt on a Stidham-Slayton touchdown bomb in the second quarter. The Tigers added two more touchdowns to start the third, and led 30-7 (a 30-point run) before Georgia scored again. Kerryon Johnson put the final nail down with his 55-yard catch and run to bury the Bulldogs, and Auburn established itself as a major and legitimate contender for the College Football Playoff.

Unfortunately, two weeks later, KJ injured his shoulder in the win over Alabama, and in the SEC Championship rematch with Georgia, injuries to Tre Williams and Carlton Davis hampered the Tiger defense as Georgia ran away in the fourth quarter for a 28-7 win and a berth in the Playoff.

Ultimately, Georgia lost to Alabama in the championship game (kill me, please), but that’s no indicator of slippage. Kirby Smart is recruiting better than anyone else in the country at the current time, and he’s building an Alabama clone on the other side of the SEC. With his franchise quarterback still in the fold, and a wealth of talent all over the field, Georgia’s not going away anytime soon. However, despite the losses of some legendary running backs, and a ton of playmakers on defense, this is a team that’s reached that infuriating spot where they reload. Who they’ve got coming back is more important than who they lost, and Georgia’s got (gulp) an embarrassment of riches coming back.

Just another day in the SEC, huh?

OFFENSE - No Chubb, No Sony, No Problem

While Jake Fromm was the catalyst for Georgia, stepping in and more than holding his own at quarterback, the reason the Bulldogs moved was because of the running game. Georgia averaged roughly 175 (very efficient) yards per game through the air, while rumbling for nearly 260 per game on the ground. When you couple that with the fact that the stable of running backs was the best in the SEC this decade (Chubb/Michel combined for over 2500 yards and 31 touchdowns, while averaging 6.8 yards per carry as a pair), Georgia was a lethal weapon offensively.

This year, it’s a little different.

Chubb and Michel are both gone, leaving the heir apparent to be D’Andre Swift. We’re not unfamiliar with him, as he was the one who put the nail in our coffin in the SEC Championship with his long touchdown run. In 2017, he averaged 7.6 yards per carry on 81 tries with three scores, but he’s a threat to catch out of the backfield with 17 grabs for 153 yards and another score. Now, what made Georgia so good last year was the fact that they had that 1-2 punch, and don’t expect that to change this season.

The Bulldogs signed one of the best recruiting classes in the country, adding five guys who were ranked at the top of their position by 247, and that includes Zamir White, the top back in the country. As a 6’1, 220-lb problem, he’ll likely be able to come in and contribute right away. If he doesn’t work out, then James Cook, the 3rd-rated all-purpose back in the country, can help lighten the load for Swift. Cook’s going to make some people look silly with his speed and slipperiness this season, and along with White will continue that Georgia running back tradition.

Still, let’s look at the quarterback spot again. It happened last year, so what if it happened again? Jacob Eason got hurt early and lost his job to a freshman. What if Jake Fromm was to sustain an injury? Georgia will be just fine. They also grabbed the top-rated quarterback in this year’s class in dual-threat phenom Justin Fields. Don’t be surprised if you see a redux of the old David Greene/D.J. Shockley strategy, where Fields is given some time during each game.

What’s going on with the receivers? Well, they didn’t have to do all that much last year, but when they did, Javon Wims and Terry Godwin (38 catches, 639 yards, six touchdowns) were both great. Wims will be playing with the Bears on Sundays, but Godwin’s back, along with some other guys that are solid, dependable catchers on the perimeter. Mecole Hardman added 25 catches for 418 yards and four scores, Riley Ridley will help chip in, and Isaac Nauta may finally start to see more balls head his way after catching just nine passes last year. While Georgia tries breaking Swift into an every-down back in 2018, it’ll be interesting to see if the passing game gets ramped up a bit more behind an experienced quarterback.

None of that means anything if the offensive line doesn’t get sorted out, and Georgia did lose some guys from last season. Isaiah Wynn was a 1st-round draftee, and Dyshon Sims was a versatile backup that helped depth across the line last year. Jeb Blazevich is also gone from his tight end spot, where he was much more of a blocker than a receiver (just two catches last year), so that’s another hole they’ll need to fill. However, there’s still tons of talent and some young guys that will have more experience in 2018.

Andrew Baker swapped sides from right to left to replace Wynn in protecting the blind side, and his place has been taken by some major size on the right with Ben Cleveland (6’6, 340) projected at right guard and Isaiah Wilson slated at right tackle (6’7, 345). The center spot will be solid with Lamont Gaillard returning for his senior season, and you could have Kendall Baker at left guard to shore things up. What we said earlier about Georgia’s recruiting efforts goes for the line as well — incoming offensive guard Jamaree Salyer was the top-rated player at that position out of high school, so we’ll see how long it takes before he sees the field.

DEFENSE

Georgia was really, really good last year on defense (the regular season meeting against us aside). They allowed less than 300 yards per game and were sixth in the land in scoring defense, giving up just 16.4 ppg. Not bad. This season it should be better. They lost some really talented, once-in-a-generation players to the Draft, but the overall skill sets should be more impressive in 2018.

Up front, consistency is the key, with returnees Julian Rochester, Jonathan Ledbetter, and Tyler Clark all coming back to man the front line of that 3-4 defense. This is a trio that can clog things up in the middle to allow the linebackers to make the plays they need. With Roquan Smith and Lorenzo Carter both gone, that bunch will need to find another couple of superstars to complete the set with Natrez Patrick and D’Andre Walker coming back. The guys to do just that may well be Monty Rice on the weak side, and Walter Grant on the strong side. Both bring limited experience to the table, but good size at 235 and 245 respectively, and they’ll have lots of help up front to get acclimated.

In the back end, Georgia will be very good after allowing just 168 yards through the air per game last season, and bringing back much of the talent for another year. The guy that everyone knows about is Deandre Baker, who’ll lock down one side for his senior season. One safety spot is also taken with J.R. Reed coming back after finishing second on the team in tackles last year behind Roquan Smith. There’s talent to burn elsewhere as well, with Richard LeCounte likely grabbing the other safety position, while Ameer Speed (fantastic defensive back name!) and Tyrigue McGhee duke it out for the corner spot opposite Baker.

SPECIAL TEAMS

Georgia brings back much of the production from last year in the special teams category, with Mecole Hardman returning to take back kicks in both the kickoff and punt return game, as well as this guy making sure balls go between the goalposts.

At punter, Cameron Nizialek is out, but Jake Camarda, the top high school punter in the country, signed with the Bulldogs earlier this year. Special teams shouldn’t be an issue for Georgia this season.

SCHEDULE

Here’s where Georgia might make its bones this season — the schedule is about as easy at it gets. First of all, the non-conference opponents are nothing, with Austin Peay, Middle Tennessee, UMass, and Georgia Tech all visiting Athens. With the Jackets as the permanent rivalry, there’s no need for Georgia to go out and schedule a team like Notre Dame last year to fill that Power Five need.

In the SEC, the first two games are on the road, with Georgia heading to South Carolina in week two, and Missouri in week four. That matchup with the Gamecocks could very well decide the East early on, and if the Bulldogs are going to have a slip-up, that’s as forgivable a time to have one.

After the game against Missouri, it’s two straight home games against Tennessee and Vanderbilt before heading to Baton Rouge in mid-October. Georgia’s bye week comes on October 20th, then it’s off to Jacksonville for the newly-Mullened Gators in the Cocktail Party, and a trip to Lexington to tangle with Kentucky the first week of November.

Auburn comes to town on November 10th, then it’s UMass, and Georgia Tech to finish the year. So there are no instances of back-to-back weekends with tough games, or back-to-back road games. Of the FBS opponents on Georgia’s schedule, just three won more than seven games in 2017. Overall, less than eleven wins is a total failure on Kirby Smart’s part, and an East Division title to hopefully go along with a berth in the CFP are part of the deal this year.

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Up next: Liberty! (and the coach that we almost had)