Since Kirby Smart came home to Athens, I have argued that changes to the program have eliminated history as a predictor of future performance. In other words, the phrase “that’s so Georgia” no longer has any meaning. Expectations that the Dawgs will have a significant drop-off in its win total with the loss of leadership and production from “the returning four” (Chubb, Michel, Carter and Bellamy) plus Roquan Smith, I think, miss the point of the program building that Smart has begun.
Roquan Smith is a beast, and he will not be replaced. The best that can be hoped for is to fill the position with someone who is merely very good, but as long as the defensive line continues to free linebackers to roam unblocked by occupying the opponents offensive linemen, “merely very good” will be good enough. If the defensive line does not provide inside backers with room to roam, neither Smith nor any other linebacker will be effective. Smith will be missed, but his absence will not cripple the defense.
The beloved running back duo of Chubb and Michel are the most often cited missing pieces for 2018. I believe that Georgia’s running game may be even better as the team moves into year three of Sam Pittman’s offensive line rebuild. Think about the progress from year one to Pittman’s second year and assume that his teaching skills remain intact. Now add the talented, young linemen who have yet to contribute, those like Ben Cleveland who began to see the field in the second half of 2017, and the extremely talented freshmen who, even if they do not play, will push the older players in practice each day. This is a recipe for continued improvement up front and more running lanes for those young running backs who will be the face of Georgia’s run game next fall.
If last year’s success was the result of personnel rather than the system, the following from Dan Wolken in USAToday makes sense for 2018:
Despite a crushing loss to Alabama in a championship game they controlled for so long, the future certainly looks good for the Bulldogs. But there’s never a guarantee you’ll get another bite at the apple, and it will be interesting to watch Kirby Smart deal with a different set of expectations going forward. Though quarterback Jake Fromm will be back with plenty of talent around him (including another elite quarterback recruit in Justin Fields), Georgia is going to be a very different team next season.
So much of what fueled Georgia in 2017 from its special chemistry and leadership to the pure ability of players such as linebacker Roquan Smith and the Sony Michel/Nick Chubb running back tandem is gone. Georgia remains the heavy favorite in the SEC East and could certainly wind up back in the Playoff with a No. 1-ranked recruiting class filling all those personnel holes, but it wouldn’t be shocking if the Bulldogs slip back to something like 9-3.
We are about to find out if Georgia was a player-centric team that blew an unlikely-to-be-repeated shot a national title or an ascendant power that will challenge for a spot in the playoffs in most years. Obviously, I think it is the latter.