SEPTEMBER 4 – CLEMSON – CHARLOTTE (BANK OF AMERICA STADIUM)
It’s the most high profile and highly-anticipated opener of the college football season, as these two old rivals square off for the first time since 2014. The game will be played on a neutral site in Charlotte, N.C., at the home of the NFL’s Carolina Panthers.
Under Dabo Swinney’s watch, Clemson has been the powerhouse of the Atlantic Coast Conference and the second most successful program in college football since 2015. Under Kirby Smart’s watch, Georgia has emerged as one of the country’s elite programs, geographically wedged right between Clemson and Alabama.
Playing a game like this out of the gate certainly grabs the attention of all the players. Those long hot practices will be more determined and meaningful knowing a heavyweight looms.
As much hype as this game will generate, in many ways it is the least important game on both teams’ schedules. For the loser, granted there is minimum margin for error, running the table and winning the conference title game would land a playoff berth. And possibly a rematch. For the winner, there is margin for error and a high profile victory (remember how big that win at Notre Dame was in 2017?), plus the likely early No. 1 national ranking. For whatever that’s worth.
The Tigers are replacing Trevor Lawrence with D.J. Uiagalelei, an elite blue chip recruit who showed last season he certainly has the stuff to be Clemson’s next great quarterback. A front filled with talent highlights the defense. A potential reshuffled, yet talented offensive line, will be put to the test. Since 2015, Clemson has won two national titles, six straight ACC titles and been to the College Football Playoff every year.
A loss to Clemson, and Georgia could surely fight back and make all the dreams come true. The Bulldogs would walk a tightrope through the grind of the SEC with the playoff still in sight. A win over the Tigers, and Georgia is riding high. The pressure and expectations of 2021 grow even more.
But as Smart says, “pressure is a privilege.’
SEPTEMBER 11 – UAB – SANFORD STADIUM
‘It’s a trap!”
Win or lose against Clemson, the Bulldogs had better be ready for the Blazers. UAB, since coming back as a program in 2017, has been one of the top programs in Conference USA. The Blazers return 17 starters from their 6-3 2020 team that captured the league title with a 22-13 Conference USA Championship Game victory over Marshall. The Blazers Gasparilla Bowl against South Carolina was cancelled. UAB went to Miami in Week Two last year, to use as a measuring stick, and fell to the Hurricanes 31-14.
Bill Clark has done a tremendous job at the helm in Birmingham. Last season’s C-USA title was the program’s second in the last three years, and the Blazers have won three straight West Division titles.
Teams from the south have good players. This is a classic “mid-major” with a talented roster full of players who might not have fit the physical parameters when it comes to size, or certain other attributes that Southeastern Conference schools look for in recruiting. It doesn’t mean they aren’t good players. And they are hungry to showcase what the “big boys” missed out on.
Georgia has superior talent, but with the emotion of the Clemson game presenting a potential hangover, and the SEC opener with South Carolina looming, this is a classic “letdown-look ahead” that could severely test the highly – touted Bulldogs.
SEPTEMBER 18 – South Carolina – SANFORD STADIUM
There has been a lot of change in Columbia, most notably at head coach. Will Muschamp is now on Kirby Smart’s staff at Georgia. Shane Beamer, who was an assistant in Athens for Smart in 2016-17 is the Gamecocks new head man.
On the Gamecocks most recent visit to Athens, they pulled off the upset of the year, downing the Bulldogs in overtime. Georgia won big in Columbia against a depleted roster. This is the first of eight straight Southeastern Conference games for the Bulldogs. Georgia has won five of the last six meetings with South Carolina, but going back to Steve Spurrier’s glory years in Columbia, the Gamecocks are 5-6 against Georgia since 2010. The Bulldogs enjoyed great success against Auburn, Tennessee and Tech over the past decade, but South Carolina has proven to be a consistent thorn in the Dogs’ paw.
Sophomore quarterback Luke Doty got a lot of experience last season and is a good bet to be one of the breakout skill position players in the league this year. The Gamecocks boast a veteran offensive line and potential at wide receiver and running back.
South Carolina lost a lot of talent in the secondary and at linebacker, but the Gamecocks defensive line is loaded. It’s one of the best units in the SEC, chock-full of elite recruits that all the big boys – including Georgia – wanted. Zaach Pickens, Jordan Burch and Rick Sandidge are amongst the headliners.
When the Gamecocks won in Athens in 2019, the South Carolina front made a slew of big plays. Georgia’s offensive line will face yet another big challenge early in the season.
SEPTEMBER 25 – Vanderbilt – VANDERBILT STADIUM
Twice last season Vanderbilt didn’t come to Athens. Derek Mason is out as the Commodores head coach and now on Auburn’s staff (more on that ahead). Clark Lea is the new head coach on the West End of the Music City. This will mark the second straight week that the Bulldogs are facing a new head coach from an SEC East foe. Notre Dame’s defensive coordinator from 2018-2020, Lea faces a big challenge.
Last season started promisingly, as the ‘Dores went toe-to-toe with an outstanding Texas A&M team that lost only to Alabama and won the Orange Bowl. The Aggies 17-12 win in College Station gave the Commodores reason for optimism. Vanderbilt went winless, finishing 0-9, with six losses coming by at least 21 points. Mason was fired with two games to go, and Vanderbilt, as mentioned above, twice didn’t make the trip to Athens.
Ken Seals is the front-runner at quarterback, and the offensive line should be improved. Firepower at running back and receiver will be a question mark. The defense should be tough. Lea, like Mason, rose to the head coaching ranks as a defensive coordinator.
Every game is big in college football, at least for the next two years. Smart and the leadership within the program constantly preach focus on each opponent. This should not be a problem. Twice having “Senior Day” and a fourth home game pulled away in 2020 has left a sour taste in Athens.
OCTOBER 2 – ARKANSAS – SANFORD STADIUM
Expectations range dramatically across the college football landscape. Sam Pittman, Georgia’s offensive line coach under Smart from 2016-2019, led the Razorbacks to a 3-7 record last year in his first season at the helm in Fayetteville, and it was one of the best coaching jobs in the league. Rejuvenated Arkansas led Georgia at halftime in the opener before falling 37-10. But it was a sure sign that things were swinging back Arkansas’s way.
Pittman’s Hogs beat Mississippi State, Ole Miss and Tennessee and lost a trio of heartbreakers to Auburn (30-28), LSU (27-24) and Missouri (50-48) by a total of seven points.
Ten starters return on both offense and defense, and the Razorbacks return seven of those “super seniors” who took advantage of the extra “Covid year.”
With “The Pitt Boss” in charge, it’s a lock that the Razorbacks will be good up front. Arkansas will indeed welcome back a talented, veteran offensive line. KJ Jefferson, who served as the understudy to Felipe Franks, takes over at quarterback. He has an excellent group of wide receivers to throw to, led by Treylon Burks, Mike Woods and an Oklahoma transfer, Jaquayln Crawford. Tight end Hudson Henry has the talent and the bloodlines.
The defense will be tough and physical. This is another very good front for the Georgia offensive line to deal with.
Yes Georgia has more talent and firepower, but Arkansas is one of those teams that could make a big jump based on experience and being overlooked. Plus, they are banking on that “year two” jump. When the Hogs play some of the traditional blue bloods this season, they’ll be banking on the fourth/fifth or even sixth year senior being able to take down a 19-year old five star.
Georgia has won eight of the last nine meetings with the Razorbacks. Arkansas, led by Ryan Mallett, beat the Bulldogs 31-24 on its last trip to Athens in 2010.
OCTOBER 9 – Auburn – JORDAN-HARE STADIUM
The last time Auburn had a first year head coach, the Tigers won the SEC championship and played for the national title on the heels of two of the most memorable plays in league annals. That was Gus Malzone’s first season on The Plains, 2013. In Gene Chizek’s second season at Auburn in 2010, the Tigers, led by Cam Newton, won the national championship. Malzone was the offensive coordinator.
There will be similar expectations for Bryan Harsin, hired from Boise State.
As always, Auburn will be talented.
Bo Nix is back for his third season as the Tigers quarterback, and Tank Bigsby is one of the best running backs in the country. They will operate behind an offensive line that returns all five starters. This is a common theme for Georgia’s 2021 foes. Mike Bobo takes over as Auburn’s offensive coordinator.
Defensively, Auburn returns one of the best linebacker corps in college football, featuring Owen Pappoe, Zakoby McClain and Derrick Hall. As already mentioned, Derek Mason is the defensive coordinator.
Even though Alabama lost a tremendous amount of talent to the NFL, the Crimson Tide are the favorites in the SEC West. For the Tigers faithful, they feel Harsin has the juice to get back to Atlanta in year one. Auburn has also beaten Alabama four times since 2010. That’s way better than anyone else. So the Tigers are right there with LSU and Texas A&M as the perceived leading challengers to the Tide.
This will be an enormous game for both teams’ playoff hopes. Auburn is hungry to take Georgia down. The Bulldogs have had tremendous success against the Tigers, winning 13 of the last 16 meetings dating back to 2006.
Georgia could be an underdog in this one, or it will be the tightest line since the opener against another set of Tigers from Clemson.
OCTOBER 16 – Kentucky – SANFORD STADIUM
Last season, Georgia beat Kentucky 14-3 in Lexington, but on that day, major injuries (on and off the field) would haunt the Bulldogs in Jacksonville the following Saturday. The Wildcats defense gave Georgia fits, but the Bulldogs found a way. Georgia has won 11 straight in the series, last losing to Big Blue in 2009. Smart is 5-0 against Kentucky as Georgia’s head coach.
Mark Stoops has done an excellent job in Lexington. In the enormous shadow of Kentucky basketball, Stoops has gotten Kentucky back to consistently being a bowl caliber team capable of not only scaring the league’s traditional powers, but coming up with wins. Over the last three year, Stoops’ Wildcats have beaten Florida, Mississippi State, South Carolina, Missouri and Tennessee, while chalking up bowl game victories over Penn State, Virginia Tech and N.C. State.
Stoops had Benny Snell and Lynn Bowden on offense and Josh Allen and Mike Edwards on defense, as the Wildcats went 10-3 in 2018. Kentucky has pumped a lot of money into its facilities and recruiting has shown the benefits. Stoops is hoping he has a difference maker in running back Chris Rodriguez, who tallied 11 touchdowns and averaged 6.6 yard per carry while tallying 785 yards last year. Kentucky also brings back a big, experienced offensive line.
Defensively, Kentucky has remained solid, even in the face of top flight personnel losses, a sure sign of improved recruiting.
The Wildcats went 4-6 in the regular season against the All SEC slate, which translates into about a 7-5 or 8-4 year in a normal year. Ending the season with a 41-18 rout of South Carolina and 23-21 Taxslayer Gator Bowl victory over the Wolfpack sent Big Blue into the offseason with a lot of momentum.
OCTOBER 30 – Florida – TIAA BANK FIELD (JAX)
Last season was an unusual one for Florida. The Gators hit their high mark with a 44-28 win over Georgia in Jacksonville, breaking a three game losing streak to the Bulldogs and returning Florida to the SEC Championship Game for the first time since 2016. Squarely in the mix for everything, Florida suffered a staggering upset loss at home to LSU – with the thrown shoe and everything. Any playoff hopes were exhausted. The Gators then played Alabama better than anyone, losing a 52-46 shootout in the SEC Championship Game.
Florida was down a lot of personnel for various reasons in the Cotton Bowl, a third straight major under Dan Mullen’s watch, and the Gators ran into a juggernaut. Oklahoma exorcised some serious SEC demons with a 55-20 rout of Florida in Dallas. From 8-1 and playoff dreaming to 8-4.
Replacing the two Kyle’s, Trask and Pitts will be very difficult. But, newsflash, Florida has talent. The Gators always have players. The offense might not have quite the punch of last season, but Florida still has big play potential. Emory Jones is the front-runner at quarterback, and the Gators may have their best collection of running backs since the Steve Spurrier era.
The big key will be the Gators defense, which has a lot of talent. The gashings at the hands of Alabama and Oklahoma certainly added a little spice to the offseason. Like all the big boys, the projected starting 11, well, they were all highly recruited players.
So often, the winner of this one has had the leg up in the race for the SEC Championship Game. Since 2011, Georgia has been to Atlanta five times, Florida three. The Gators have been to 13 of the 29 all-time title tilts, Georgia eight. All of the Bulldogs trips have come since 2002. They’re all big, especially with such high expectations for Georgia this season. But this is the one, whether Georgia is undefeated, once or twice beaten, that could elevate and send the Bulldogs on an upwards trajectory. It could be a high mark as a milestone win, it could be a rejuvenator if the record isn’t what hopes are at this point. It could also be a massive rivalry win to give the Bulldogs the keys to the driver’s seat in the race to Atlanta, and a fourth series victory in the last five years. It could also take all the wind out of Georgia’s sails if things go south.
For the Bulldogs, don’t just need it, gotta have it.
NOVEMBER 6 – Missouri – SANFORD STADIUM
This is a tricky spot on the schedule. MIssouri is tough, and sneaky good a lot of years. The Tigers also play Georgia tough. Even when the Bulldogs have been able to pull away, it is a grind. Missouri is always physical and big up front. The Tigers turn out excellent defensive linemen and always have a quality five on the line offensively.
Eli Drinkwitz is a sharp young coach. In one year as the head coach at Appalachian State, he led the Mountaineers to a 13-1 record and the Sun Belt championship (Drinkwitz is credited at 12-1, leaving for Columbia before App State’s bowl win). In his first season at Missouri, the Tigers of 2020 posted a 5-5 record, exceeding most expectations. He also put the sizzle back into a Mizzou offense that had fizzled some in 2019.
Connor Bazelak was an outstanding freshman quarterback in 2020, throwing for 2,366 yards and completing 67 percent of his throws. Bazelak tallied seven touchdowns against six interceptions and has the look of the Tigers next outstanding quarterback.
Missouri returns a majority of its starters and has the potential to challenge in the SEC East. The defense must improve, and it certainly could. Trajan Jeffcoat was first team All-SEC at defensive end, and he leads a talented front.
The Tigers have a friendly schedule and this one should have major Atlanta ramifications. The Tigers are at Vandy the week prior, while Georgia is battling the Gators in Jacksonville.
Kicker Harrison Mevis connected on 17 of 20 field goals last season. He teams up with punter Grant McKinniss to give the Tigers one of the league’s top kicking tandems. The Bulldogs have won seven straight in the series, are 8-1 against the Tigers in SEC play and 9-1 overall in the head to head.
After Jacksonville, can the Bulldogs catch fire and lightning and really get rolling?
NOVEMBER 13 – Tennessee – NEYLAND STADIUM
There is a coaching change in Knoxville, where Josh Heupel takes over for Jeremy Pruitt, who didn’t make it three full seasons. The faithful on Rocky Top are hungry for an offense that will match up with the league’s best. Heupel’s record as an assistant, notably at Missouri, and as the head coach at Central Florida – and of course as Oklahoma’s 2000 national championship quarterback – gives reason for optimism on Rocky Top.
As for his first season, it figures to be a challenge. The Volunteers have a lot to replace. The transfer portal giveth, and taketh away. Tennessee got hit hard.
The biggest boost for Tennessee is Virginia Tech graduate transfer Hendon Hooker, who started 15 games over the past two years for the Hokies. He’s a dual threat that the Vols will lean on heavily, assuming he beats out Harrison Bailey. Though the talent level might not match up from top to bottom, the Volunteers still have a lot of good players. Pulling together the offensive line is a huge key to the Vols success.
Defensively, Alontae Taylor will be leaned on heavily at corner.
The early portion of the schedule is doable, then things get real tough with four of six on the road from late September through early November. The Volunteers will be at Kentucky the week before hosting Georgia.
Tennessee is one of three SEC East teams with a new head coach. Since Phil Fulmer’s departure in 2008, Heupel is the Volunteers fifth head coach. With a bunch of coordinators (and athletic directors thrown in), that is a lot of turnover.
Georgia has won nine of the last 11 meetings and leads a series Tennessee once dominated. The Vols two wins during that stretch were a blown 24-3 Georgia lead in 2015 the Hail Mary to break the Dogs hearts in 2016.
This will be the latest on the calendar these two have ever met. Clinching the SEC East could be on the line on a potentially cold Saturday on the banks of the Tennessee. It will be Georgia’s eighth straight Southeastern Conference game.
NOVEMBER 20 – CHARLESTON SOUTHERN – SANFORD STADIUM
A member of the Big South Conference in Division 1-AA/FCS, the Buccaneers went 2-2 in the spring schedule. They won their final two games, beating Robert Morris and Gardner-Webb in North Charleston, after losing the first two on the road at Kennesaw State and Monmouth.
Obviously this is a game that Georgia should win. Handily. Though you can bet Smart will make reference to Nicholls State in his second game as Georgia’s head coach, as the 50-point favorite Bulldogs held on for a 26-24 win.
This one is a buffer. Eight straight in the SEC, and then the state championship on the line.
NOVEMBER 27 – Tech – BOBBY DODD STADIUM
Last season, for the first time since 1924, the Bulldogs and Tech didn’t play. So it’s back to Atlanta, where the two last met in 2019, as Georgia won 52-7, despite an awful second quarter, in Geoff Collins first season on The Flats. Since 2001, Georgia is 16-3 against Tech, and the Bulldogs had second half leads slip away in the three losses. It was tough for Georgia not playing last year, as the Bulldogs figured to be a heavy favorite.
Collins had a massive overhaul project at Tech, transitioning for Paul Johnson’s triple option attack, which delivered the Yellow Jackets an ACC title, a pair of Orange Bowl berths and three wins in Athens. Smart’s defense solved the triple option in resounding 2017 and 2018 victories, and that helped usher in the change in Atlanta.
While the Bulldogs will certainly welcome not having to prepare for the challenge of Johnson’s offense, Collins is getting good talent in Atlanta. With the change in style, the Jackets have become more attractive to prospects. And transfers.
Tech went 3-7 last year, beating Florida State, Louisville and Duke.
Getting to six or more wins and bowl eligibility is certainly a realistic goal for a Tech team that returns a vast majority of its starters.
The Yellow Jackets have a terrific running back in Jahmyr Gibbs, their best since Johnathan Dwyer. Jeff Sims could be the Yellow Jackets best quarterback since Josh Nesbitt. Tech has gotten bigger up front on both lines and gotten a talent influx from transfers like defensive backs Derrik Allen (Notre Dame) and Kenyatta Watson (Texas).
Smart is hopeful of being in a similar position to 2017, 2018 and 2019 – once beaten and SEC Championship Game bound, with the state title on the line in a de facto “Sweet 16” game for the Bulldogs.
The Jackets will be in South Bend to play Notre Dame the week prior, and will be looking to close the season in strong fashion. This Tech team, especially with Gibbs and Sims, cannot be taken lightly. By anyone. Especially the school that so many of their fans hate so much. Nothing clean about this old-fashioned hate.