The Governors, famed for their student chant when “Fly” Williams starred on the hardwood for Austin Peay in the 1970s, make their first trip to Sanford Stadium. Austin Peay was one of the top teams in the Ohio Valley Conference a year ago, posting an 8-4 record, winning eight of the last ten after an 0-2 start. The Governors went 7-1 in OVC play, finishing second to Jacksonville State, a 34-14 winner at Austin Peay. The toughest foe on the schedule Central Florida blew them out 73-33. Quarterbacks Javaughn Craig and Jeremiah Oatsvall return for their junior and sophomore seasons, respectively. It will be hot, South Carolina will be on deck, but the Bulldogs will be eyeing a good start. The Georgia faithful will be especially anxious to see some of these highly touted freshmen make their red and black debuts.
This will be a huge test for Georgia. Old coaching friends and Georgia alums Kirby Smart and Will Mushchamp square off for the third time as the head coaches for the Bulldogs and Gamecocks. Last season, South Carolina gave the Dogs their toughest test between the hedges and most tightly contested SEC East game, as Georgia won 24-10. While the Bulldogs aim for a fourth straight win in the series, Muschamp is eyeing a signature Saturday in Columbia. Leading the way for South Carolina is junior quarterback Jake Bentley, who sparked the Gamecocks midseason turnaround in 2016. The Gamecocks went 9-4 last year – College Football Playoff participants Georgia and Clemson delivered two of those setbacks – and capped the campaign with an Outback Bowl win over Michigan. The biggest shoes to fill are left by first round pick Hayden Hurst, a tremendous tight end who was impossible to cover. There is talent at wide receiver though led by Bryan Edwards and Or-Tre Smith. Rico Dowdle was sidelined midway through the season with a broken leg, and that left a big hole at tailback. He came back though for the bowl and had an outstanding performance against Michigan, carrying six times for 45 yards and catching three passes for 32 yards. As a freshman, Dowdle had 100-plus yard rushing performances against Tennessee and Mizzou, and racked up 226 against Western Carolina. Massive tackle Javon Kinlaw Anchors the defensive front. Sophomore defensive back Jamyest Williams will certainly bring his “A” Game as one of the top Peach State products on the Gamecocks roster. This is the first of three huge road challenges for defending SEC champion Georgia in the first half of the season. The Bulldogs performances here, the other Columbia and Baton Rouge will largely tell us whether Georgia heads to Jacksonville with a shot at a special season.
Mid-majors from the south are always dangerous. These schools have good athletes and they have a chip on their shoulders, because most have been passed over in the recruiting process by college football’s heavyweights. The Blue Raiders went 7-6 a year ago, beat Arkansas State in the Camellia Bowl and pulled off an upset of the alma mater of Jim Brown, Ernie Davis, Donovan McNabb, Dwight Freeney, Larry Czonka and Marvin Harrison. The 30-23 win at Syracuse is one that the Blue Raider faithful will long remember. Middle Tennessee returns 17 starters, and longtime head coach Rick Stockstill has a “coach on the field” in son Brent Stockstill, the third leading returning active passing yardage leader in the country. He is a record-setting All-Conference USA selection, who headlines a list of eight returning starters, which includes the entire offensive line, leading rusher Tavares Thomas and top receiver Ty Lee, who led C-USA with 79 catches in 2017. The defense also brings back eight starters. At the top of the list is Camelia Bowl MVP Darius Harris, who had 12 tackles, a sack and a forced fumble in the win over Arkansas State. This is a team that Georgia can’t take lightly, and the Blue Raiders visit Athens right between road trips to the two Columbias. But Smart’s Dogs figure to be up to the challenge. Plus there is still the Nicholls State game from 2016.
Drew Lock is back at quarterback, and the future first round pick has a lot of talent to play with. Mizzou’s senior signal caller has had a lot of success against Georgia the last two years, and the Tigers passing attack gives them upset hope and SEC East contenders status. Emmanuel Hall, who burned Georgia for a pair of deep touchdowns in Georgia 53-28 win over the Tigers last season, and redshirt sophomore tight end Albert Okwuegbunam, who caught 11 touchdowns as a freshman, will be Lock’s favorite targets. The Tigers return most of their offensive line and defense. The key for Missouri is improvement on the stop side. Mizzou had a bizarre season in 2017. The Tigers got off to a 1-5 start, low-lighted by a 35-3 loss at home to Purdue. But after the loss in Athens, in which they played well against Georgia, Lock led the Tigers on a six game-winning streak. The high marks: CoMo blowouts of SEC blue-bloods. Missouri flattened Florida 45-16 and trounced Tennessee 50-17. A 33-16 loss to Texas in the Texas Bowl was a disappointment. Josh Heupel has moved on from his offensive coordinator’s post to the head job at Central Florida. His successor, Derek Dooley. He has a talented cast to work with. Missouri goes to Purdue the week before Georgia comes to town.
On the Volunteers last visit to Athens, they pulled off one of the biggest plays in school history and beat Georgia on the Hail Mary. Since then, things have not gone well. Despite a respectable 9-4 record in 2016, the Vols missed out on a golden opportunity to play in the SEC Championship Game for the first time since 2007. Former coach Butch Jones became a walking punch-line, from “Champions of Life,” to the turnover trash can, to one of the greatest off weeks in Tennessee history to leadership reps. A 41-0 beat down of the Vols in Knoxville was a highlight for Georgia. The Vols would later lose to both Kentucky and Vanderbilt and go 4-8, with an 0-8 SEC record, the first eight loss season in Tennessee’s storied history. Enter Jeremy Pruitt and re-enter Phil Fulmer. There is some obvious history there with Georgia, and Pruitt certainly sold that he could produce similar results to his predecessor at Alabama, who was the 2017 SEC Coach of the Year. Tennessee has a ways to go. Pruitt will find the spotlight of being the head man much brighter than that of high profile coordinator. A critique of Tennessee fans who didn’t come to the spring game – with grammar that make any English teacher or newspaper editor cringe – might not have been the best way to start. There is also the questioning of Fulmer’s motivations as athletic director. He is one of the best coaches in Volunteers history, but the house wasn’t exactly divided upon his ouster in 2008. While Tennessee may have become a “dumpster fire,” with Fulmer returning to the rescue, he may have thrown some gasoline on the inferno. But those chapters have been written and the Vols now look to the future. Unless the fear is that Fulmer may try and pull a Barry Alvarez and power his way to the sidelines and things go sideways. Pruitt and his staff, which is loaded with Georgia ties, are desperately trying to upgrade the talent level in Knoxville. Only time will tell down the road, but this season could be rough for the Vols again. The schedule is once again front loaded. The Vols open with one of the Big XII’s favorites West Virginia in Charlotte. Following a pair of tune-ups, Tennessee’s next five, and first five SEC games are: Florida in Knoxville, the Dogs in Athens, then an open date prior to a trip to Auburn, the visit from Bama, and the Gamecocks in Columbia. Could they spring an upset? Sure. Two? Maybe. Anything more, that’s a stretch. The Vols would make a big step forward if they could beat Kentucky and Vandy. Keller Chryst, a graduate transfer from Stanford, is a good bet to win the starting quarterback job. Offensive tackle Trey Smith is Tennessee’s most highly touted player. Tailback Ty Chandler was underutilized last season – as was departed tailback John Kelly in the red zone at Florida – and gives the Vols some juice. Jauan Jennings is expected back with the program after off-field problems. He had the last second grab in Athens. A Bulldog win would make it 7-2 in Georgia’s favor in the 2010s (the two losses: a blown 24-3 lead and the Hail Mary) and even the all-time series.
Two years ago there were three excruciating losses for Georgia between the hedges. Vandy was another of those. The Dogs took that disappointment and used it as the organic filaments for the great transformation of the program in 2017. The Bulldogs vengeance tour against Tennessee, Vandy and Tech (plus Florida) was extremely impressive. Now the goal is getting some Sanford Stadium vengeance and to continue to set the table for a long dominating run in the Kirby Smart era at Georgia. Vandy will always be solid on defense with Derek Mason. Starting linebacker Jay Hockaday is the son of 1980’s Georgia wide receiver Jimmy Hockaday. Kyle Shurmur is a talented quarterback and Khari Blasingame a powerful runner. This game is between Tennessee and the trip to Baton Rouge. Last season Georgia took a big step forwards with back-to-back blowout wins in Knoxville and Nashville, signaling a changing of the times for the Bulldogs. Doubtful it will be 41-0 and 45-14, but these are two that Georgia should flat out win again.
Tiger Stadium will be rocking, and Ed Orgeron will be eyeing that signature win over the defending SEC champions. LSU always has players, but this is a critical year for the Tigers and Orgeron. There are still quarterback questions down on the Bayou, and though they will have talent at tailback, Darius Guice leaves a big hole at tailback. This also makes three offensive coordinators in three years. So much of this one will be about handling the atmosphere of Tiger Stadium and physicality of LSU. Of course Kirby Smart has transformed Georgia into a much more physical football team. There is some history here for the Bulldogs in years that end in the number eight. The Bulldogs SEC champions of 1948 beat the Tigers In the capital city. Lindsay Scott’s 99-yard kickoff return to start the second half keyed a Georgia victory in Baton Rouge in 1978. There was the big catch by Champ Bailey in the Dogs victory on the Bayou in 1998, and in 2008, Darryl Gamble had two “pick-six’s” in a shootout Georgia victory at Tiger Stadium. An open date and then the Gators loom. This is the third of those three tough SEC road games prior to Jacksonville. The hostile environment of South Carolina will help prepare Georgia’s young players for this. To reiterate, if the Bulldogs come out of Baton Rouge 6-1 (or better), this team may just hit its stride the rest of the way.
Last season’s 42-7 shellacking of Florida was a high point of the Bulldogs fabulous SEC championship season. That was the swan song for Jim McElwain. Now Dan Mullen, former offensive coordinator for Urban Meyer and Tim Tebow, and the successful head man at Mississippi State over the last decade has come to Gainesville. His first chore is to get the Gators offense going again. Even in their 11-1 regular season of 2012 and those consecutive SEC Championship Game trips in 2015 and 2016, Florida’s offense was a shell of what it was in their glory days of Steve Spurrier and Meyer. Florida returns a lot of talent on defense and the offensive front. True freshman Emory Jones will get a shot at quarterback. The Peach State native is part of that great prep crop from Georgia that includes Bulldog Justin Fields. Georgia dominated this series until Spurrier’s arrival, then it slipped heavily Florida’s way. The Dogs won three straight from 2011-2013. Then the Gators got three in a row. The totality of Georgia’s win in 2017 and the trajectory of the programs hit a crossroads. While Smart has invigorated the Georgia people, the Gators are hopeful that Mullen, technically the program’s fourth head coach (if you count the interim Randy Shannon) since Meyer berated a reporter for even suggesting he could even think about putting on another school’s colors upon his “retirement” from Florida, can get Florida back amongst the elite. Florida’s history is with its offense. The defense will be run by Todd Grantham.
This one is a classic trap game, falling right between Florida and Auburn. Last season, Kentucky came to Athens between Georgia’s trips to Auburn and Tech. The Wildcats hung tough with the eventual SEC champions, but the Bulldogs pulled away in the fourth quarter. Kentucky has one of the best running backs in the country in Benny Snell. He is a tackle-breaking bruiser, a chain-mover who is tough to bring down. Coming off what will likely be a warm day in Jacksonville, heading for what will probably be a cold day in Lexington will be another test. This is one of those games that will be a good indicator on Georgia turning the corner. Even though the Bulldogs have so much to replace, with the talent on board from superb recruiting, Georgia has the better personnel. With everything that Kirby Smart is building, with national and SEC championships and domination of rivals the ultimate goal and objective, taking care of business without emptying the tank against the non-traditional powers in the league is another box to check.
The deep south’s oldest rivalry took yet another twist last season, as Auburn rolled past Georgia, cashing in on Bulldog miscues, to win 40-17 on the Plains. In the SEC Championship Game rematch, the Bulldogs dominated the fourth quarter and took the conference crown with a resounding 28-7 triumph over the Tigers. The twists and turns of this series are fascinating. The latest example, the curse of the 7-0 lead. Auburn struck first and grabbed 7-0 leads in 2014, 2015 and 2016. Georgia came back to win all three, with those opening drives being the Tigers lone touchdown all three times and the lone scores in ’14 and ’16. Georgia scored on the first possession of the game at Jordan-Hare last season. Auburn grabbed the 7-0 lead at Mercedes-Benz Stadium, scoring on the opening drive of the game. Now Kirby Smart and Gus Malzahn certainly won’t concede opening touchdowns to the other side to play the odds and funny trend, but this is yet another example on what goes down when the Dogs and Tigers get together. Georgia has won 10 of the last 13 meetings between the two – Auburn played for the national title in its previous two recent wins in 2010 and 2013. Both teams lost a lot of talent off of last season’s supremely talented teams. Jarrett Stidham and Jake Fromm are two of college football’s top returning signal callers. Georgia’s offensive line will have one of its toughest challenges, as once again Auburn will be strong up front. Odds are at least one of these SEC blue-bloods will be in the top ten and both could still have Atlanta in their sights.
The Minutemen were 4-8 a year ago, as the one-time Division 1-AA powerhouse (UMass beat Georgia Southern for the 1998 national title) continues to try and find its way in college football’s upper division. Former Cleveland Browns quarterback Mark Whipple, who led UMass to that ’98 crown, is back In his fourth season in his second stint at the helm in Amherst. This is clearly a game that Georgia should win. Last season in Knoxville, the Minutemen gave Tennessee quite a scare, as the Volunteers escaped with a 17-13 win. In 2016, South Carolina edged UMass 34-28 in Columbia. So there is a history of scaring SEC foes. UMass returns its line, and all of the starting skill personnel from last season, including quarterback Andrew Ford. The senior lefty threw for 22 touchdowns last season against just four interceptions. They figure to be a much improved team in 2018, but clearly this is a game that Georgia should win. Where it falls on the schedule brings that focus factor into play. “Keep chopping.”
Make no mistake, once again, this is the biggest game of them all. Tech has won its last two game in Sanford Stadium, as the Bulldogs suffered devastating losses to the Yellow Jackets in 2014 and 2016. Last season’s 38-7 pounding of Tech was a grand crescendo of Georgia’s vengeance tour of 2017. But there is a second act the Bulldogs badly need. Paul Johnson is 3-2 as Tech’s coach in Sanford Stadium – Georgia blowing a pair of double digit leads and the squib kick. Of course what went down in 2016 helped lay the foundation, those organic filaments from disappointment that becoming the burning fire for triumph and redemption. TaQuon Marshall is swift and talented at quarterback. This will be his second year piloting the Yellow Jackets flex-bone, which is usually when Johnson’s signal callers hit their stride. Most of the offensive line is back, there is talent in the running game, and Brad Stewart headlines the receivers and specialists. The big question for Tech is how much better the defense will be be. The Jackets return a lot of experience and new coordinator Nate Woody promises a more aggressive attack. Woody was the defensive chief at Appalachian State the last five seasons. In the end, this game comes down to Georgia handling the Tech option, winning the battle up front and taking the fight to the Jackets. Playing this team on your heels, literally and figuratively, is a recipe for disappointment. Even if the Bulldogs are playing for the SEC title the next week against you know who, this is the game Georgia must have. Another impressive margin would be sweet. Smart’s last game in Sanford Stadium was a gut-wrenching last second loss to the Yellow Jackets in the pre-replay days when Joe Hamilton’s fumble was ruled not a fumble. That would have been eight straight and matched the infamous drought for the longest winning streak in the series. Perhaps in 2024 Georgia will be gunning for an eighth straight win over Tech and win. As for now, a ninth straight win at Grant Field last season restored order in the series. Dominating Sanford Stadium and the state, Georgia will try and deliver that double in the biggest game of them all.