Jeff Dantzler breaks down Georgia’s 2017 football schedule game by game from the home opener versus Appalachian State between the hedges at Sanford Stadium and the big road game to South Bend to face the Irish in September all the way through November when the Bulldogs wrap up the regular season against Kentucky at home and of course, ‘old fashioned hate’ week where the Dogs look for revenge on the Bugs in Atlanta.
This is some kind of tough opener for the Bulldogs. Appalachian State, famed for its upset at Michigan to open the 2007 season and three straight Division 1-AA national titles, has flourished in the Sun Belt – which it joined with Georgia Southern, making the jump in 2014. The Mountaineers went 10-3 last season, nearly upsetting Tennessee in Neyland Stadium, with the Volunteers awaiting the Bristol showdown with Virginia Tech the following week. Sound familiar?
The Mountaineers have a load of talent back, led by standout quarterback Taylor Lamb, All-Sun Belt a year ago and one of the top National Football League signal-caller prospects for the 2018 draft. A native of Calhoun, his father Bobby Lamb was the quarterback on Furman’s 1985 squad, which lost to Georgia Southern in the Division 1-AA National Championship Game and is now the head coach at Mercer. Taylor’s grandfather Ray was a highly successful prep coach in Georgia and later worked on the Bulldogs coaching staffs of Ray Goff, Jim Donnan, and Mark Richt.
There are some serious ties here for Lamb, and some major upset and near/upset history for Appalachian State. While a lot of Georgia fans will be planning the next weekend’s trip to Chicago and South Bend, Bulldogs coach Kirby Smart will be driving his team to be ready for a knee-knocker with the Mountaineers. A year ago, Appalachian State finished 40th in the final Sagarin ratings last season, Georgia was 38th.
This is not just one of those games where the worry is simply the focus. Georgia will have to play a great game to win. And remember, Georgia beat Nicholls State 26-24 a year ago, so there is no reason or room for the Bulldogs to be cocky about anything! That should serve Smart when it comes to motivating the troops.
If Georgia beats Appalachian State, this game will have a load of hype. Notre Dame hosts tough Temple in its opener.
The Bulldog faithful for years have been clamoring for a game like this, and they’ve got it If the Georgia faithful aren’t focused on the opener the week prior – and the team feeds off of all of that, especially in this era of social media connecting the two – a lot of air will be out of the balloon.
Plans are being made. Play golf Wednesday and Thursday. Catch the Cubs Friday night. Take the train or party bus to South Bend, then check out the Falcons and Bears from Soldier Field Sunday.
The campus is beautiful and it will be Georgia’s first trip there for football. The other meeting between the two served as the grandest day in Georgia football history. January 1,1981, Georgia beat Notre Dame 17-10 in the Sugar Bowl to cap a perfect 12-0 season and win the undisputed 1980 national championship.
This will be a tough test for Georgia. The Irish resemble what Tech was able to do in 2015 and 2016. The Yellow Jackets of T5 went 3-9 with a slew of close losses, including Georgia’s 13-7 triumph on the flats. We all know what happened with Tech’s rebound campaign of 2016.
The Fighting Irish went 4-8 last season, but seven of the losses were by one to eight points, a “one score” game. The Irish must replace quarterbacks Deshone Kizer, now a Cleveland Brown, and Malik Zaire, but return 15 starters. They are a great bet for a big turnaround, and beating a royal Southeastern Conference program would be a huge boost Georgia’s last win as a road underdog was the 30-24 triumph at Tech in 2009.
Do we need to reference Nicholls State again, and how Georgia can take nothing for granted?
Samford was an FCS playoff team a year ago, falling to Youngstown State in the first round. The Bulldogs posted a 7-4 regular season record, paced by an explosive offense that put up a big number in Starkville in a 56¬41 Mississippi State battle of Bulldogs win. It marked a sixth straight winning program for the strong Southern Conference school in Birmingham.
The school’s head coach Chris Hatcher is quite familiar with Georgia. Following a stellar prep career at Macon’s Stratford Academy, he was a record-setting quarterback at Valdosta State, recruited by famed Bulldog quarterback, coach and now, special assistant to Smart, Mike Cavan. Hatcher excelled coaching his alma mater, then went to Georgia Southern before finding his way to Samford.
This will be a good test for the Bulldogs, and the final non-conference game before the biggest game of them all the Saturday after Thanksgiving.
It will be tough for Georgia to be 3-0 coming into this SEC showdown, but if the Bulldogs are, then the expectations will be ramped up. Mississippi State is always a tough, physical team, and now head coach Dan Mullen has a stellar quarterback in Nick Fitzgerald and some momentum. MSU was at the end of a disappointing season marred by 1,3,7 and 2 point losses. Poor field goal kicking was the root of the problem.
But MSU picked it up and crushed Ole Miss 55-20 in the Egg Bowl, and edged Miami of Ohio – on a missed RedHawks field goal – in the St. Petersburg Bowl.
A native of Richmond Hill, Ga., just outside of Savannah, Fitzgerald picked Mississippi State – as Mullen famously told reporters following the Egg Bowl triumph with a victory cigar – over UT-Chattanooga. Fitzgerald ran the triple option at Richmond Hill High and fell through the cracks. But what a find in Starkville and the successor to Dak Prescott. He broke the single-season SEC record for 100-yard rushing games with eight. He topped the century mark on the ground in six of State’s final seven games and finished third in the SEC in rushing. An outstanding passer, he threw for 21 scores, while running for 16 TDs. Fitzgerald produced a league-high 45 plays from scrimmage that went 10 or more yards.
Mullen led Mississippi State to the school’s first win over Georgia since 1974 in 2010 and will have his Starkville Maroons hungry for a royal league scalp between the hedges.
Well, the last two years produced excruciating losses to Tennessee. In 2015, Georgia raced to a 24-3 lead in Knoxville on a slew of big plays and Volunteer miscues but lost 38-31. It was the largest blown lead in an SEC loss in Georgia annals. Last season, Georgia led 17-0 in the first half and lost 28-24 on the Hail Mary following Jacob Eason’s scoring toss to Riley Ridley. Tennessee has to replace a lot of talent on defense, plus do-everything running back and return man Alvin Kamara and quarterback Joshua Dobbs, a pair of Peach State natives who haunted the Bulldogs in those crushing losses.
Redshirt freshman Jarrett Guarantano has tremendous dual threat potential at quarterback for the Volunteers, he figures to edge Quinten Dormady for the starting job, at least by the time the Bulldogs come to town.
Smart’s aim to get Georgia on top means that the Bulldogs must control a lot of series with staunch rivals – most notably Tech and Florida, that goes for Tennessee as well. It has been a funny series since the league expanded in 1992 and the two began playing every season. Tennessee won nine straight from 1989-1999, then the Bulldogs won five of six. Tennessee won three of the next four, then from 2010-2014, Georgia went 5-0 against the Volunteers – the final three coming by 7,3 and 3.
If Georgia is going to make it to Atlanta to play for the SEC championship, this one is critical, but of course, they all are.
Last season in Athens, the Commodores dealt the Bulldogs one of three devastating losses between the hedges. The good news for Georgia heading to Nashville this year, Zach Cunningham is now a Houston Texan. The bad news, Ralph Webb is back for an offense that got it and smoked Ole Miss and Tennessee in November. Kyle Shurmur got his footing at quarterback and Vanderbilt hit its offensive stride late in the season.
Derek Mason is an excellent defensive coach and has gotten Vandy back in the thick of things after struggling in 2014 and 2015. The ‘Dores didn’t just beat Georgia, Ole, Miss and the Vols last year, they only lost by seven to both Florida and Auburn.
It’s tough for Georgia going to Nashville the week after going to Knoxville. The crowd is maybe one-fourth to one-third what it was the week prior, and despite all the warnings not to take Vanderbilt lightly, it is always a concern. Well, it shouldn’t be for Georgia. The Commodores have now beaten the Bulldogs in two of the last four seasons.
What goes along with what Smart is attempting to do at Georgia – win championships – getting the talent to that level should mean the ability to overwhelm a majority of the schedule. Georgia is on its way, but certainly not there yet.
Georgia has won four of the five meetings with Missouri since the Tigers joined the SEC in 2012, the last two won by the Bulldogs 9-6 in Athens and 28-27 in CoMo. It still feels like an oddly timed non-conference game. This is Georgia’s lone home game in October, and for the Bulldogs to make it to Atlanta, it’s a must win.
Mizzou has twice been to the SEC Championship Game since Georgia’s last visit in 2012. Their 2013 squad that had an 11-1 regular season en route to the title tilt posted a signature 41-26 win in Athens.
Jacob Eason and the Georgia defense were outstanding in the second half last season at Missouri. Both will again have to be good. Missouri has produced several outstanding defensive linemen in the 2010s, and are a good bet to again be strong up front The Tigers stacked the line of scrimmage last season against the Bulldogs to take away running lanes, daring Georgia to throw. Eason led Georgia to the go-ahead score and the Bulldogs defense forced the fumble to secure the win.
The Tigers will operate a fast-paced offense, and Drew Lock is primed for a big season at quarterback.
There is the open date and then the Gators in Jacksonville. On the list of games Georgia is hungry to win, this one is right there behind only Tech. Make no mistake, the path to the SEC Championship Game runs through Jacksonville. This series turned when Steve Spurrier arrived as the Gators head coach in 1990. Georgia led the all-time series 44-22-2 at that point. Florida has won 21 of the 27 since, including the last three in a row.
Jim McElwain has led Florida to the SEC Championship Game in each of his first two seasons, with the Gators going 10-4 and 9-4. Florida is 13-3 in the SEC in his two seasons.
Florida will again be strong on defense despite losing a lot of talent to the NFL.
The question in Gainesville is whether the Gators can find the explosive offense that highlighted the glory days of Spurrier and Urban Meyer?
Georgia can get over the hump in Jacksonville one way, and one way only, win. Then win again and win regularly. That’s how a series can flip. Too often over what has now been more than a quarter century of mostly disappointment in Jacksonville, self-inflicted wounds have doomed the Dogs – poor special teams play, surrendering a non-offensive touchdown, turnovers.
Last season, Florida’s defense absolutely dominated the Bulldogs, making the Georgia offense zero-dimensional for most of the second half.
The Georgia offensive line must play well, the defense must make the stops, and Georgia must avoid the dreaded special teams disasters. No matter where Georgia is sitting at this point, a win over the Gators would be a huge lift for the program. Everyone in red and black is desperate and hungry to turn this series back Georgia’s way.
The timing of this one couldn’t be any worse for the Bulldogs. South Carolina catches Georgia at a perfect time, as Will Muschamp tries to lead the Gamecocks to an upset of his alma mater. After Florida, prior to Auburn, the Gamecocks catch Georgia in a classic ‘tweener. The Bulldogs won 28-14 last season on a Sunday in Columbia due to Hurricane Matthew. That short week and noon kickoff didn’t help in the one-point loss to Vandy the following Saturday.
Jake Bentley, an early enrollee, took over for South Carolina at quarterback in the second half of the season and played very well. Following their loss to Georgia, the ‘Cocks won three straight, including victories over Missouri and Tennessee.
South Carolina got smoked by Clemson 56-7 and then fell to South Florida in the Birmingham Bowl to finish 6-7 on the campaign. Still though, for the Gamecocks to make a bowl game in a season when they were projected to maybe win three or four, was a good accomplishment in Muschamp’s initial campaign. Bentley headlines a group of 10 returning offensive starters and he has some weapons to throw to, including former minor league baseball player Hayden Hurst, one of the top tight ends in the SEC.
Six starters return on defense, and South Carolina gets back outstanding linebacker Skai Moore, the best player and leading tackler for the Gamecocks of 2015 missed last season due to injury. The toughest player for South Carolina to replace will be All-SEC kicker Elliott Fry, who was a weapon in his four seasons in Columbia.
Speaking of kickers who are weapons. Auburn returns Daniel Carson, the best in the country. An All-American and Lou Groza Award finalist, Carlson is 8 of 12 on career field goal attempts of 50-plus yards and booms almost every kickoff out of the endzone. The big question for the Tigers is whether they can become a bit less reliant on one of the best kickers in school history.
Following early season losses to Clemson and Texas A&M, Auburn got hot, picking up six straight wins to break into the top ten at 7-2. But Georgia held the Tigers without a second-half first down and rode a pick-six to a 13-7 victory between the hedges, the Bulldogs ninth in the last 11 renewals of the deep south’s oldest rivalry. Auburn hung tough with Alabama, falling 30-12 with all of the scoring coming on a quartet of Carlson field goals. Outside of the 12-0 Crimson Tide, every other SEC team had at least four losses. Auburn got a Sugar Bowl berth and lost to Oklahoma 35-19.
The key to Auburn’s success will be the play of quarterback Jarrett Stidham, a transfer from Baylor. The Tigers need to keep those chains moving for the up-tempo Gus Malzahn offense. Auburn’s defensive line, despite losing Montravious Adams and Carl Lawson, a pair of Peach State natives, to the NFL, should again be very good – and a big test for Georgia’s O-line. Both teams will be in the full on grind of SEC play. The Tigers are at Texas A&M the week before the Dogs come to town.
There have been so many classic battles between these two, and no team has taken more from Georgia through the years than the Tigers. The success the Bulldogs have had against Auburn since the 2006 upset on the plains has been staggering and satisfying, giving Georgia a two-game lead in the all-time series. Of course the two times Auburn won in that stretch, the Tigers played for the national championship.
It was a thriller last season in Lexington, with Rodrigo Blankenship hitting the game-winning field goal to deliver a last-second 27-24 victory. Things looked bleak for Mark Stoops, whose seat was scalding, but the Wildcats got hot and had a shot at the SEC Championship Game before Georgia’s win at Commonwealth Stadium, now Kroger Field. Kentucky beat South Carolina, Vanderbilt, Missouri, and Tennessee in the league, then capped the regular season with a 41-38 victory at then 9-2 Louisville. They lost the Gator Bowl to Tech.
Stoops is eyeing an improved defense, which is a must if the Wildcats are going to contend for the SEC title.
The ‘Cats have a typical, big line and Stephen Johnson is more than capable at quarterback, a threat running and throwing. The emerging star is running back Benny Snell Jr., a nephew of Jets legend Matt Snell, who scored their lone touchdown in Super Bowl III. Snell was pounding away against the Georgia defense out of the wildcat offense on a game-tying field goal drive late in the fourth quarter last season.
Georgia must be on its game. The biggest game of all looms and this is the eighth of eight straight SEC showdowns in a nine-week period. If this is a championship season, then Georgia’s offense should be clicking. And it will take at least a game or two of tremendous offensive performances, no matter how good the Bulldogs play this season.
The way the last two losses to Georgia’s arch rival have gone down make them extra painful. The fumbles on the one and the squib kick in 2014. A 27-14 lead with the ball at midfield last season in the fourth quarter. Bitter and gut wrenching.
There are a lot more Tech bumper stickers, car flags and T-shirts on display around the Peach State as the Yellow Jacket fens are happy to boast.
Paul Johnson’s offense is simply tough to defend. Teams like Georgia with defensive linemen with NFL futures don’t like those offensive linemen chopping at their knees. Who would? Tech is going to score, move the chains and eat dock. At no lime can the offense take the foot off the pedal, especially with the lead. The mentality has to be to score every time because when the Jackets flex-bone gets cooking, it is excruciating to defend.
Tech went 3-0 against the SEC last season, capping the campaign with an aforementioned Gator Bowl win over Kentucky. The Yellow Jackets bring back a lot of talent, and quarterback Matthew Jordan has shown he can be a standout The job is now his.
Georgia has won eight straight at Bobby Dodd Stadium and historic Grant Field, and 12 of the last 13 on the flats – the lone loss the blatant cheating by A1 Ford and his crew on the infamous 1999 Jasper Sanks “fumble” call. It would be mighty sweet for Georgia to continue its success in Atlanta against Tech, and avoid losing three of the last four to “The Enemy? What would make a win even sweeter would be a return to Atlanta and Mercedes-Benz Stadium for the SEC Championship Game with the state championship in the Bulldogs hands.
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