When Georgia has lost to Vanderbilt, there has often been the let-down factor to deal with. The last two seasons that has not been a factor in any Georgia games, as Kirby Smart’s Bulldogs rolled up 22 wins by at least two touchdowns in 2017-2018. On the Dogs run to the College Football Playoff in 2017, a 45-14 drubbing of the Commodores in Nashville – a week following a 41-0 rout of Tennessee in Knoxville – served notice that this was a new Georgia. Focus. That focus should certainly be there for the season-opener, and it’s a business trip road game.
Last season, the Commodores became the first team to take a lead against Georgia and hung around for most of the first half before the Bulldogs would pull away for a 41-13 victory. Derek Mason’s ‘Dores always figure to be strong on defense, but departed quarterback Kyle Shurmur leaves huge shoes to fill. One of the best quarterbacks in Commodores history, he closed the door on Tennessee last season, going 31-35 for 367 yards. Ball State graduate transfer Riley Neal, who threw for 11 touchdowns against just four interceptions, with 1,917 yards last season is the front-runner to step in behind center.
Opening on the road in a conference game will be a good test, and there promises to be a horde of Bulldogs in Music City, USA celebrating the Labor Day Weekend with a Hunker Down Honky Tonk.
As the Racers make their second visit to Athens, the big story of the day will be the official unveiling and naming ceremony of Dooley Field at Sanford Stadium. This is one of those games that Georgia should win handily and get lots of players on the field. If the Bulldogs aren’t 2-0 coming out of this one, there are some major problems in 2019. The first time these two squared off, the United States of America was coming off the greatest victory in history, as the Bulldogs kicked off the 1945 campaign between the hedges with a 49-0 rout of the Racers. Charley Trippi joined the Bulldogs midseason, returning from World War II and the Bulldogs went 9-2, shutting out five foes, including three straight against Florida (34-0), Auburn (35-0) and Tech (33-0).
Interestingly, Murray State is the last team that Georgia beat in the NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament, back in 2002 in Chicago. With the stellar recruiting class that Tom Crean and his staff have assembled, the Bulldogs of 2019-2020 will be expecting at least one or two Big Dance victories.
This is one of those teams that is tough. Yes Georgia should win, and win relatively comfortably, but Arkansas State is a program that has won a lot and will have nothing to lose. Plus, you might have heard, the following Saturday, Georgia will play in a highly anticipated tackle football game. In Tuscaloosa last season Alabama whipped ASU 57-7. A number like that might be a stretch, but the red and black certainly needs to be clicking.
The Bulldogs and Red Wolves will meet for the third time. The Bulldogs 10-2 standouts from 1997 topped Arkansas State, and Mark Richt chalked up his first win at the Georgia helm against ASU back in 2001.
After going through a revolving door of head coaches, including Auburn’s Gus Malzahn, the Red Wolves have finally gotten some stability, as Blake Anderson heads into his sixth season at the helm in Jonesboro. Last season, Arkansas State went 8-5, and 5-3 in the Sun Belt, tying for the division title, before falling in overtime 16-13 to Nevada in the Arizona Bowl. A onetime Division I-AA heavyweight, Arkansas State lost to Erk Russell’s Georgia Southern Eagles in the 1986 championship game. Not trying to classic Dooley/Russell/Larry Munson poor mouth, but Georgia will have to have its focus or ASU could make things a little uncomfortable with the following week’s Titanic matchup on the minds of so many.
This will be the third meeting between two of the most storied programs in college football history. The Bulldogs biggest win ever came over the Fighting Irish on January 1, 1981, as Georgia triumphed 17-10 over Notre Dame in the Sugar Bowl to win the national championship with a perfect 12-0-0 record. Two years ago marked the first meeting between the schools since, and with red and black covering half of Notre Dame Stadium, the Bulldogs had a 20-19 breakthrough victory over the Irish that would help catapult Georgia to the College Football Playoff and tantalizingly close to the national championship.
This past season, after suffering a heartbreaking loss in the SEC Championship Game, Georgia was pushing for a playoff spot. But the Bulldogs were voted fifth. Notre Dame and Oklahoma would join Clemson and Alabama. The Irish were destroyed by Clemson 30-3 in the Cotton Bowl. That night, a few Georgia players, quite uncharacteristically in the Smart regime, took to Twitter expressing how the Bulldogs should have been in the four-team field. The Bulldogs, three nights later, lost to Texas 28-21 in the Sugar Bowl. There are lessons taken from that trip to New Orleans.
Notre Dame is talented, and head coach Brian Kelly has an outstanding quarterback in Ian Book. Georgia, of course, has a dandy behind center in Jake Fromm, who made his first career start in South Bend two years ago. My, how he and the Bulldogs have grown.
Both figure to be undefeated, as the Irish open at Louisville and host New Mexico. For the winner, they will be heavily in the playoff conversation. For the loser, they certainly won’t be done, but the margin for error will be zero the rest of the way. This is undoubtedly one of the most highly anticipated games ever played in Sanford Stadium. This is Notre Dame, and it’s their first trip. They’ll have a lot of fans, but nowhere near what the Bulldogs had in South Bend. If this Georgia team is going to do something special, this is one the Dogs must have. Everyone can then catch their breath, as an off-week follows, then Georgia goes to Tennessee for the first of seven straight SEC games prior to the finale at Tech. The hype will be done, and the grind truly begins.
With Jeremy Pruitt heading into his second season as Tennessee’s head football coach, and former coach Phil Fulmer doing the same as athletic director of his alma mater, the Volunteer fanbase is hoping for significant progress this year. Last season, as expected, the Vols lost to Alabama, Georgia and Florida. A win over Auburn and upset of Kentucky whipped the Tennessee faithful into a frenzy. But for a second straight year, the Volunteers lost 50-17 to Missouri. Yep, same score. Then for the fifth time in seven years, Vanderbilt beat Tennessee, with the aforementioned Shurmer piloting the Commodores to a 38-13 pounding of their in-state rival.
But its year two, and Tennessee is pushing for that bump. The Volunteers return a vast majority of their yardage producers and tacklers from a year ago. Jim Chaney takes over at offensive coordinator and will be charged with pushing Jarrett Guarantano into significant improvement at quarterback. Tailback Ty Chandler is a speedster and the Volunteers receiving corps is one of the league’s deepest and most talented, led by Jauan Jennings and Marquez Callaway. Four starters are back on the offensive line, so the experience and foundation is there. The question is, how much improvement is possible?
Tennessee will have questions on the defensive line but should be good at linebacker, and very good in the secondary, with Nigel Warrior a top safety. Both Georgia and Tennnessee will be coming off open dates, and Neyland Stadium will be rocking, especially if the Volunteers have pulled off the upset at Florida. The first three games are at home with Georgia State, BYU and Chattanooga. With Pruitt from the Nick Saban tree and Chaney coming up from Athens, there won’t be a ton of mystery and intrigue when it comes to match-ups, formations and scheme. Last year in a 38-12 Georgia win, the Volunteers played their safeties very deep, refusing to give up the big play and forcing the Bulldogs to drive. Which Georgia did. This Vols team figures to be much more competitive.
Last season in Columbia, the Bulldogs blasted the Gamecocks 41-17, with a 21-0 third-quarter onslaught burying a confident, borderline cocky, Garnet and Black bunch. When “Sandstorm” was blaring going into the fourth quarter, Williams-Brice Stadium had as many Georgia as home fans. Two years ago, Georgia beat South Carolina 24-10 in Athens, the closest of the Bulldogs 22 victories over the last two years. This Gamecocks squad, with Georgia alum Will Muschamp in his fourth year, will be eyeing the upset.
While Georgia is slugging it out with Tennessee, the Gamecocks will be enjoying an open date. Where South Carolina will be at that point is a big question? The ‘Cocks open with North Carolina in Charlotte. After a tune-up against Charleston Southern, South Carolina hosts Alabama, goes to Missouri and hosts Kentucky. The Wildcats have beaten the Gamecocks five straight seasons.
The front seven should be very good, and Muschamp is a defensive coach. The Gamecocks bring back an excellent corps of defensive linemen and linebackers and welcome in freshman defensive end, Zacch Pickens, who is their most highly touted recruit since the Steve Spurrier days of Marcus Lattimore, Stephon Gilmore, Ja’Daveon Clowney and Melvin Ingram. Jake Bentley is back for his senior season at quarterback, and Bryan Edwards is a very good receiver. The offensive line must be retooled, and South Carolina is searching for a frontline back. This figures to be a defensive slugfest, with the Bulldogs top end talent having to deliver big performances for Georgia to chalk up a fifth straight win in the series.
With Benny Snell running big and Josh Allen wreaking havoc, Kentucky went 10-3 in 2018, the Wildcats best season since going 10-1 in 1977. The Wildcats broke a 31-game, yes 31-game, losing streak to Florida, winning 27-16 in The Swamp. That victory gave Kentucky a huge jolt, and impressive wins over Mississippi State and South Carolina would follow. The Wildcats took a controversial 15-14 thriller at Missouri and headed into the next week’s game against Georgia with the SEC East on the line in a top ten battle.
The Bulldogs dominated Kentucky, pounding the Wildcats 34-17 in a game that was much more one-sided than the score indicated. That one carried over, and Kentucky fell to Tennessee 24-7. A 56-10 pounding of hapless Bobby Petrino and struggling Louisville was a nice finish to the regular season. The Wildcats then put the shine back into the season with a thrilling 27-24 Citrus Bowl win over Penn State. Kentucky also beat Penn State in 1977.
Well Allen, Snell and stellar safety Mike Edwards are now in the NFL. Those would be big shoes for any school to fill, but the Wildcats recruiting, while good, isn’t at that level. Lynn Bowden is a superb play-maker at receiver and in the return game. Quarterback Terry Wilson will surely be looking his way. The defense has to replace a lot. This is one Georgia should win, and if the Bulldogs could make it 7-0 with the second open date the next week, things are right on track for a special, special season. If there is a loss on the schedule, then it’s a long road to the playoff. The November slate is brutal, The toughest in college football.
Gator Bowl (TIAA Stadium)
There has been a lot of noise coming out of Gainesville and from Dan Mullen in the off-season. Attrition has hit the Gators freshman class, but Florida still figures to be very good and highly talented in 2019. Like Georgia, the Gators had some standout players leave early for the NFL. Mullen has done a fine job in his career developing quarterbacks, so with Feleipe Franks and Emory Jones back, the Gators feel confident here. Frankly, since Tim Tebow’s glory days, Florida has been ordinary – at best – behind center. The Gators are talented at receiver and running back, but have a lot to replace on the offensive line. That will be the team’s biggest question mark. Florida is always going to have players, and the secondary should be very good. The big question is whether a front-line front-seven difference maker emerges.
Now let’s get down to Georgia-Florida. The Bulldogs bid Jim McElwain adieu with a 42-7 demolition of the Gators in 2017. Last season, leading 23-17 in the fourth quarter, Georgia chalked up its third and fourth third-down touchdowns of the game to put Florida away 36-17. Mullen, while giving Missouri credit for being a good football team, said at the end of last season that Georgia beat them twice. The Tigers rolled in and blew away Florida 38-17. The Gators were then trailing South Carolina 31-14 in the second half, then put together an impressive rally to win 35-31. That was the start of a four-game win streak. Idaho was dispatched, and then Florida smoked the worst Florida State team since they were an all-girls school 41-14. It was the Gators first win over their in-state foe since 2012 when Muschamp was at the helm. The number 41 was a good one for Florida, as it pummeled Michigan 41-15 in the Chick-Fil-A Peach Bowl, far and away the most impressive of their four successive wins.
Florida opens the season in “Week Zero” with Miami in Orlando. UT-Martin and Towson, both FCS schools are on the schedule. The Gators open SEC play, trying to re-take control of the series. You know, after 31 straight. Then the Volunteers come to town. October 5, Florida hosts Auburn, goes to LSU the following week and then goes to South Carolina before the annual Cocktail Party open date.
This is one both teams have circled. Florida has been a lot of talking. Georgia will try and, for a third straight year, do the walking in Jacksonville.
No matter what happens the week before, Georgia must have its attention squarely on the Tigers, who have an open date the week prior. This is the second of five straight in the November gauntlet, and Mizzou is tough. The Bulldogs have won five straight in the series, but Mizzou has been right there in the last four, including 9-6 and 28-27 Georgia wins in 2015-2016. The Bulldogs have won the last two 53-28 and 43-29, but there have been some nervous moments, especially the one in Columbia last year.
Record-setting quarterback Drew Lock is gone, but the Tigers will turn the keys of the offense over to Clemson transfer Kelly Bryant. His top target will be Albert Okwuegbunam. One of the top players in the country, “Albert O” is an incredible tight end who figures to be a top-10 pick in the next spring’s NFL Draft. The redshirt junior’s return for his fourth season and forego the draft was enormous for the Tigers.
So this is the classic trap game, between the old rivals Florida and Auburn, and Mizzou coming off the open date. Missouri is undefeated in November each of the last two seasons, and that includes the aformentioned back-to-back 50-17 blastings of Tennessee in 2017-2018, and 45-16 and 38-17 pastings of Florida. Say what you will about the Volunteers and Gators, but when Mizzou came into the league in 2012, even the staunchest Tigers fan and most pessimistic of Tennessee and Florida boosters couldn’t have foreseen eye-openers like those.
Once again, the Tigers should have a strong offensive line, as three starters return. Few schools have turned out more outstanding defensive linemen in the 2010s than Mizzou, and the Tigers will be in search of the next one to succeed Terry Beckner, Jr. Barry Odum has done a very good job stabilizing things at his alma mater, and the Tigers will be all in between the hedges. It is going to be a battle. Even though Mizzou is ineligible for a bowl (appeal pending), the Tigers will figure in who goes to Atlanta.
There will be major stakes when the Bulldogs and Tigers battle on the Plains. Georgia has dominated the series over the past decade-plus, turning the tables by winning 11 of the last 14 meetings, highlighted by a 28-7 victory over Auburn in the 2017 SEC Championship Game. That was a rematch of a 40-17 Tiger blowout win over the Dogs at Jordan-Hare three weeks prior. Georgia won 27-10 last season, with the Bulldogs defense dominating the second half and Jake Fromm and D’Andre Swift coming up with the big plays offensively.
Of course Auburn will be tough and strong and physical. This is one of those years where there aren’t heavy expectations, making the Tigers especially dangerous. Especially in this odd-numbered year, meaning visits from their big two, as both Georgia and Alabama make the trip to the Plains. Add Auburn to the list of five Georgia foes who have open dates before playing the Bulldogs. That’s a huge edge for the Tigers, while Georgia is in the third of this five straight week – hoping for a sixth – gauntlet. The Bulldogs have caught some breaks in recent years against Auburn with the schedule, but it breaks Auburn’s way this year.
Defensive tackle Derrick Brown is one of the country’s best. The Peach State native is back for his senior season and will anchor a talented defense. The secondary should be one of the SEC’s best. The big question will be who plays quarterback? By the time the Bulldogs come to town, it could be highly touted true freshman Bo Nix. The big threat in the passing game figures to be JaTarvious Whitlow, who smoked Purdue’s secondary in the Music City Bowl. But here’s what makes Auburn scary offensively. All five starters are back on the offensive line.
We all know the unique history of Georgia-Auburn. There have been so many upsets, so many road team wins, and so many classics in the Deep South’s Oldest Rivalry. But the simple fact is that in recent years there have been several pull-aways and double-digit touchdown margins of victory. In fact, in the 2010s, seven of the ten meetings have been decided by at least 17 points. If Georgia is 10-0 or 9-1 coming out of this one, the Bulldogs will obviously be right in the midst of the playoff mix. But there is some heavy lifting still to come.
The last time Texas A&M came to Athens, the Bulldogs blew out the Aggies 42-0 to improve to 2-0 in 1980. The Aggies and Missouri joined the SEC in 2012, and this is the first intra-conference meeting between the two. A lot of Aggies fans will be decending on Athens looking for tickets. Jimbo Fisher has invigorated a passionate fan base, and the surreal seven-overtime win over LSU (a game that looked like the Bayou Bengals had won a few different times) was that year one breakthrough win.
Now the schedule is tough for Texas A&M, but the Aggies have firepower. Wide receiver Kendrick Rogers is one of the most explosive and talented players in the country. The junior is a true difference-maker. Quarterback Kellen Mond is the unquestioned quarterback, and four starters return on the offensive line. There are candidates to step to the forefront at tailback, and A&M has the promise to have one of the SEC’s best offenses. The big question will be making continued improvement defensively. Frankly, it has taken some time coming from the Big XII to put forth a front line SEC defense. Perhaps this is the year. The week prior, Texas A&M hosts South Carolina.
What a game this will be. In year’s past, the Bulldogs have scheduled a lesser opponent between Auburn and Tech or played Kentucky. But this is a big-time premier match-up between two teams with championship dreams. The schedule is rugged for the Aggies. They host Alabama, but on the second weekend of the season go to Clemson. Last year in College Station, Fisher’s team took the Tigers down to the wire, falling 28-26. Texas A&M could play itself into title contention. If Georgia is still standing at this point, it will be an incredible tribute to the depth of talent assembled by Kirby Smart and his staff on the recruiting trail.
Grant Field – Bobby Dodd Stadium
And then comes the biggest game of them all. Georgia has won the last two meetings 38-7 in 2017 and 45-21 a year ago, with Tech scoring the final two touchdowns late in the fourth quarter. The Bulldogs have won nine straight on The Flats and 13 of the last 14, with the lone loss over that stretch at historic Grant Field coming on the infamous Al Ford/Jasper Sanks fumble call that stole the game. As big as Florida, Notre Dame, Auburn, Tennessee, the Aggies and Gamecocks all are, winning the state is where it all starts.
There is a new coach at Tech, and Geoff Collins is changing the offense. It will be a plus not having to constantly prepare for Paul Johnson’s triple option flexbone but expect the Yellow Jackets overall talent level to increase. They will be in the recruiting game more, simply because of the style of play. Will there be some growing pains this year? There figures to be. But there is excitement amongst the Tech fan base. A record crowd of over 21,000 showed up for the spring game, and though Johnson took Tech to ACC title games and won three times in Athens, the new coach buzz for Collins is certainly there. He has also vowed not to “use red ink.”
Tech opens the season and the SEC Network with a Thursday night affair at Clemson. The Jackets close the season with three straight home games, as Virginia Tech, N.C. State and the Bulldogs come to town. Tech has a lot to replace on defense, while the offense has some obvious adjustments to go through, notably on the offensive line. Lucas Johnson and James Graham are the front-runners at quarterback. By the time the Dogs roll into town, true freshman Jordan Yates could be taking snaps. The Yellow Jackets got some transfer help on both sides of the ball.
So big picture, over the next few years, Tech will be more of a thorn in the side when it comes to recruiting, meaning the roster should be more talented. Tech is putting together a class now that could turn out to be its best since 2007. Think about it, the Jackets will now recruit more receivers, linemen, defensive backs, and tight ends (Tech had none in the flexbone) that they had zero chance with because of the nature of the style of play. But that triple option was a great equalizer. Make no mistake, Georgia needs to win and win big to welcome Collins to the rivalry. Now this will be the fifth of five straight huge battles, and the potential of a third straight SEC Championship Game looming.
If the Bulldogs beat “the enemy” to go 11-1 (or let’s get greedy and say 12-0), then it has been a truly spectacular regular season – and month of November.