Previews 2018: Florida, Georgia and Kentucky

Jul 17, 2018; Atlanta, GA, USA; Georgia Bulldogs head coach Kirby Smart talks to the media during SEC football media day at the College Football Hall of Fame. Mandatory Credit: Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports
Jul 17, 2018; Atlanta, GA, USA; Bulldogs head coach talks to the media during SEC football media day at the Hall of Fame. Mandatory Credit: Dale Zanine-


Projected record: 12-0; 8-0 and 1st SEC East
Returning offensive starters: 8 (SE, WR, LT, LG, C, RG, TE, QB)
Returning defensive starters: 5 (DE, DT/E, MLB, RCB, SS)
Returning specialists: 1 (PK)

Unit ratings
QB: Ex DL: Av
RB: Av LB: Av
WR: Vg DB: Av
OL: Vg ST: Vg

Overview: Most were expecting an improvement in Kirby Smart’s second season; not so many were expecting to be a blown coverage away from a national championship. While picks Georgia to repeat in 2018 as SEC East champs, and to do so with yet another undefeated regular-season record, this Georgia team isn’t as strong as the one it replaces. A rebuilding defense, a more pedestrian running back group and the change from hunter to hunted all will have an effect

Offensive breakdown: Last year’s team could rely on an NFL-caliber running back group to dig it out of trouble; this year, it’s more of a one-man show. D’Andre Swift turned a lot of heads as a true freshman, averaging 7.6 yards per carry over 81 carries. With Nick Chubb and Sony Michel both in the NFL, Swift was set to take over with true freshman taking the backup spot. Instead, White has suffered his second significant leg injury in a year, and now will be forced to elevate either Brian Herrien or Elijah Holyfield to the position. The 2017 season was an outlier for Georgia of late, as once the season started, none of its top backs suffered an in-season injury. Were Swift to go down in 2018, though, the Bulldogs might be in trouble.

If the running game falters, at least this year knows what it has under center. Jake Fromm played wise beyond his years in 2017 and nearly came away with a ring because of it. And now, with true freshman phenom Justin Fields the likely backup – if not competitor for his starting job – Fromm is expected to take things to the next level. Georgia will likely have its own Jalen Hurts/ fight going on within the fan base, though, as Fromm is not a mobile quarterback, while Fields is a dual-threat. Fromm’s efficiency and big-play prowess, though, should see him keep the job unless he basically falls apart.

If can find a physical receiver to replace Javon Wims, the Bulldogs should be fine in the passing game. Tight end Isaac Nauta and his backup, Charlie Woerner, make a nice combination, while the expected starting receiver trio of Terry Godwin, Mecole Hardman and Riley Ridley have plenty of experience and work well together. Ridley’s emergence against Alabama in January was encouraging. Hardman is probably the one who needs to step up most, as Godwin is mostly thought of as a supporting piece. Finding a couple of younger to step up in the A-rotation is also a need.

Probably the most surprising development of 2017 was the going from question mark to stalwart, out of the gate. From the center left, returns intact, but the right side of the line is being rebuilt. With the running game now a touchy subject, there may be more pressure than usual put on this group to keep the quarterbacks healthy and happy.

Defensive/ST breakdown: was expected to ride its defense in 2017, and that’s exactly what happened. Even a pass defense that was questionable in the preseason ended up ranked in the top 10. But graduation and the NFL Draft exacted a heavy from the Bulldogs over the offseason.

Up front, Jonathan Ledbetter will get his chance to shine at defensive end, because no one else is comparable. Tyler Clark returns at the tackle/end combo slot, but the search is on at both nosetackle and behind the other two starters. Names like Michael Barnett and DeQuan Hawkins-Muckle were being looked at this spring and potential A-rotation in the middle, so this will have to work itself out as the season progresses. David and Justin Young are roleplayers at end that will need to step up.

There’s a lot to like at linebacker from a raw talent standpoint, but experience is at a premium. Natrez Patrick, technically a returning starter who missed the playoffs, will anchor the middle. Weakside linebacker will probably be some combination of Monty Rice, Tae Crowder and Juwan Taylor, although freshman Quay Walker will also get a look. The outside positions should be in good hands. D’Andre Walker flashed a ton in limited playing time last year, while Walter Grant is an unknown but one that practice observers rave about. The big issue outside is that there is no depth to speak of behind Walker and Grant, at least not from an experience standpoint.

The defensive backfield should be fine provided cornerback Tyrique McGhee bounces back from a foot injury. If he can’t go, there is a distinct lack of experience aside from returning starter Deandre Baker. At safety, J.R. Reed’s return is a plus, but given Reed wasn’t expected to make much of an impact in 2017 and then did, there are questions as to how much of his good play came from having stronger around him. Richard LeCounte figures to get the free safety spot, but he’s small for an SEC safety. Freshmen will have to play.

The saga of placekicker Rodrigo Blankenship might be fuel for a movie one day. For now, he’s most of what is holding up Georgia’s high ranking at the position. Punter could be interesting, or just a mess; Long and signee Jake Camarda will probably fight over this spot for some time. The presence of Mecole Hardman as a return specialist gives an extra weapon many teams don’t have. And with as much athletic ability as this roster has top to bottom, it would be a shock if the Bulldogs don’t cover kicks and punts well.

Overall Trend: Up. It’s hard to see how could go much further up than it already has, but the fact of the matter is Kirby Smart’s staff is out-recruiting the one it replaced. The short-term trend for Georgia might be a step back or two if some of the younger make critical mistakes this season, but the long-term trend is for the Bulldogs to move fully into a spot as Alabama’s annual SEC foil.

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