Han Vance on Georgia football: The predominant adjective I keep hearing about the 2018 Georgia Bulldogs is young. Coming off a huge contract extension, Coach Kirby Smart leads his third team into action in September. What a difference a year can make; what a year.
Georgia lost one total (avenged) game over a calendar year, won its league for the first time in a dozen years, then won the Rose Bowl and led in overtime of the national championship game, coming up short of the ultimate goal.
An advantage for the Jake Fromm-fronted defending SEC champions is a significantly softened schedule, as it appears today. I say that caveat knowing how tough the postseason can be and how far off preseason perceptions of programs – always weighted too much by what happened last year, by the media – can change to reality after toe meets leather week after week.
Georgia replaces Miss State (#19 final AP ranking) in Athens with LSU (#18 in same) in Death Valley, but drops (#11) Notre Dame, for a year. The Gators and Vols are down, each whipped by around 40 by Georgia and with new coaches, and the SEC East is therefore, by definition, soft. Only Florida, Georgia, Tennessee have been SEC league champions ever, from the lesser SEC division. Georgia has fared horribly in road cross-division games under Kirby but could find solace in a projected to be down LSU. Trend-wise LSU usually does better than expected when they are predicted not to be strong, though.
Deeper inside the numbers of the final AP Poll of the 2017 football season: Georgia finished #2 and had the most wins in the country and in school history. Those are certainly highly improbable, to nearly impossible, goals to immediately repeat. At 13-2, Georgia matched the wins of the 13-1 SEC champs of 2002, though Georgia had just the fourth best winning percentage in the country last season: UCF 13-0, Wisconsin 13-1, BAMA 13-1. Unusually high amount of teams crowded near the national top, three of the final top 10 were SEC teams. SEC West champion Auburn was an anomaly that high as a four-loss squad, the most losses of any team amongst the top 17. The Big 10 was the second best conference, locked out of the college football playoff, with the final #5, 7, 8, 15, 17. Locking all other leagues out of the final was huge for the SEC as a whole. Another league crown was in the bag after the first round of the college football playoff.
Kirby having three recruiting classes under his belt indicates that this is a team of his guys from-the-get-go, mostly, for the first time that he has been a head coach. Surely an exciting prospect for the SEC Coach of the Year. An epic number one national recruiting class is further evidence of Kirby’s dominance throughout his career as a recruiting coordinator and defensive coordinator and head coach. This year and the year after, when Georgia should have a more mature roster, are perhaps what Kirby will ultimately be remembered for, which could not have been said had his ’17 Dawgs made one more play.
This is his time.
Let’s look here at the years after some of Georgia’s very biggest years, to see how the program has fared in the bright, immediate afterglow.
1943 – Coming off an 11-1 national championship, the war ravaged the SEC and Georgia had a down year (6-4) in a season that basically didn’t count. The Dawgs were the dominant program of the decade.
1947 – Georgia got the (war and football) veteran talent back and went undefeated but was jilted for the national championship in 1946. Charley Trippi finally matriculated and Georgia fell in ’47 (7-4-1).
1981 – Georgia’s only undisputed national championship at 12-0 was followed up by a two-loss SEC champion (10-2).
1983 – While the 1982 team was a one-loss team ranked number one until late in the heartbreaking final game of the season, in the year after Herschel the Dawgs stayed strong (10-1-1).
2003 – Richt’s second team went 13-1 and won the SEC and Sugar Bowl; his third team slipped a little bit (11-3).
2008 – UGA was 11-2 in 2007 and ranked final #2. The program pulled out just 10 wins with three really rough losses (10-3) in the year after, falling from a first-ever number one preseason ranking to start the campaign.
2013 – 2012 Georgia was the other UGA team a play away from everlasting glory in Atlanta versus Alabama. Injuries derailed Richt in an unlucky ’13 (8-5). Of any year to follow one of these big years that was not war-ravaged, the eight-win campaign was by far the worst because of the talent on-hand, including Todd Gurley and Aaron Murray.
Summational, 2018 Georgia is looking to do what Vince Dooley did once, the year after the school’s best player ever and what Mark Richt never did, in having a great year after a top-tier peak. Kirby has the tools to do it. Save that 1983 team that did win the Cotton Bowl over #1 Texas 10-9, the closest I see to it happening more than once in school history would have been if I’d considered the (10-2) 1981 team – the relative low point of the stellar Herschel era – as a true UGA peak, followed by a strong 1982 team, but the 1981 team fell short of its expectations, in retrospect.
UGA has had 13 SEC champs and 15 total league champs, none repeating outside of the 1980-1982 seasons’ three-peat. Could Georgia have entered into an era of dominance unseen since the early ’80s?
Which brings me back full circle to the 2018 schedule. A softer schedule is timing up nicely with a young team stepping into some huge shoes. The current schedule, of course, does not guarantee a return trip to the SEC championship game or games in the CFP, where Georgia faced quality competition. Georgia eventually played a tough schedule in 2017, when you throw in Auburn twice, Alabama, Oklahoma, with ranked Notre Dame and Miss State. As the schedule appears today, Georgia is the preseason favorite in every single game.