Welcome to Hype Week, our look at the teams fans and analysts seem to be especially excited about heading into the season. Some of these squads may turn out to be really good! Others, though, could drastically underperform expectations. Our goal is to examine why each of these teams is getting so much hype, and whether they can live up to it. The final team under the microscope is Georgia, who ranks No. 16 in SI’s preseason Top 25 poll.
Jim Chaney’s favorite adjective is “tickled.” Or maybe it’s his favorite verb to use in the passive voice, but since we can be fairly certain no one is physically tickling Georgia’s offensive coordinator as he attempts to perform his playcalling/recruiting duties, we’ll stick with adjective.
Chaney doesn’t have to make many public utterances because Georgia coach Kirby Smart spent nine seasons working for Nick Saban before returning to Athens, and Saban’s coordinators are only subjected to interviews once in the preseason and a little in the postseason—unless they’ve taken a head-coaching job and need to go house-hunting. But from the 22 minutes Chaney spent answering questions on Aug. 5, we know he’s tickled about the following things:
• He’s tickled about the quarterback room, which features a former five-star recruit who started 12 games as a true freshman (Jacob Eason), a four-star freshman from the Peach State who flipped from Alabama (Jake Fromm) and a fifth-year senior (Brice Ramsey) who spent the past two years as Georgia’s punter, decided to transfer and then changed his mind. That does indeed sound like a lively room.
• Chaney is tickled specifically with the fact that Ramsey returned, though he may have used this particular episode of tickling to duck a question about whether Fromm or Ramsey is the backup to Eason.
• Chaney also is tickled about the freshmen offensive linemen, whom he described as large individuals capable of bending effectively at the knees. (This, by the way, is precisely what a coach would want in an offensive lineman.)
This all sounds wonderful, and if Chaney is also tickled with the development of Georgia’s returning offensive linemen and sophomores such as Isaac Nauta, Riley Ridley and Mecole Hardman (or juco transfer Ahkil Crumpton) give Eason viable targets beyond Terry Godwin, then the hype surrounding Georgia might be entirely justified.
Remember, I am the person who considers Georgia the best coaching job in the country because no other school has so much talent in its own state with so little resistance in its own state. The state of Georgia has become a more consistent producer of Power 5 talent than California, and last year it produced more NFL draft picks than any other. None of those Peach State draftees played for UGA, though, and that further reinforced the mandate Smart was given after he replaced Mark Richt: Sign this in-state talent, develop it and win championships, or else. I understand the resting state of healthy skepticism that has come to define the fan base. Georgia has seemingly every advantage, yet can’t seem to take advantage.
If Georgia ever gets itself together, it could dominate an SEC East that doesn’t seem to want to produce a legitimate SEC title contender. The hope in Athens is that Smart will follow the path of former boss Saban, who followed a 7–6 2007 by reeling off 12 consecutive wins—including the famed Funeral Game between the hedges—in 2008. Smart went 8–5 last year, and the defense (his area of expertise) seems solid. The biggest questions are on offense, where Chaney will be under intense scrutiny in year two.
What Chaney didn’t reveal amid all the tickling is exactly what he found when he went soul-searching after last season. That was another popular phrase, and it’s probably an accurate choice. If you’ve seen the classic episode of The Simpsons in which Bart sells his soul, the scene where the Kwik-E-Mart automatic doors don’t recognize a soul-less Bart is an excellent approximation of Georgia’s running game for much of last season. The nadir came in Jacksonville, where the Bulldogs abandoned the run against Florida (19 carries) and essentially said, “Hello Gators, please attempt to decapitate Jacob Eason.” After that game, top backs Nick Chubb and Sony Michel met with Chaney and reminded him that they remain effective toters of the football. “I asked him, ‘Are we going to run the ball more? What’s your plan?’” Chubb told reporters last November. That isn’t a question anyone—much less the program’s best back—should be asking that late in the season.
The problem may have been a matter of physical limitation up front. Want to see a terrifying graphic? Click this excellent piece from CFBFilmRoom.com that maps when Chubb met first contact last season. For comparison’s sake, the site also included a map of when LSU’s Leonard Fournette met first contact last season. The maps looked drastically different. Fournette occasionally made it to the second level before having to deal with a tackler. Chubb routinely slammed into a defender near the line of scrimmage. Since we know from previous seasons that Chubb has excellent vision, this suggests the line was getting physically dominated.
That will have to change if the Bulldogs hope to return to the SEC title game for the first time in five years. The Bulldogs continue to tinker with combinations on the line. Isaiah Wynn (left tackle), Lamont Gaillard (center) and Solomon Kindley (right guard) seem set, but left guard and right tackle are up for grabs. Andrew Thomas, a 6' 5", 320-pound true freshman from Lithonia, Ga., has worked with the first team at both positions. Five-star freshman Isaiah Wilson also has worked with the first team at left guard.
With Chubb and Michel back, any improvement by the line could make Georgia’s offense potent. The backs would be dangerous, and the better they run, the better play-action passes will work for Eason and company. The Bulldogs have enough talent to win the East, and they aren’t going to get rid of Smart (this year) if they don’t. But Chaney is another matter. So he needs to be tickled with the results of his soul-searching. If he is, Georgia won’t be that far from contention for more than the East. If he isn’t, the Bulldogs may have to do another kind of searching.