Georgia

Why this should be the year Kirby Smart brings a national title to Athens

It’s not at all a stretch to say Georgia is among the elite programs not just in the SEC but all of college football.

Any program not named Alabama or Clemson would love to have 24 wins, a conference championship and a national championship game appearance in the last two seasons.

Still, there’s unfinished business in Athens along with different ways to define “elite.” For those who hold the word to the highest of standards, Georgia may still be a tier behind the Crimson Tide and Tigers because it’s been nearly 40 years since the Bulldogs won a national title.

But in 2019, Georgia has the offense to finally break through and end its championship drought.

Discussions about title contenders usually begin and end with quarterbacks, and the Bulldogs could have one of the best in the country this fall. Jake Fromm came into his own after the loss to LSU in October, throwing for 1,340 yards, 17 touchdowns and just two interceptions in his last seven games of last season.

During those seven contests, Fromm posted a 67.7 completion percentage and 8.5 yards per attempt average. Incredibly, those numbers include a below average performance by his standards against Texas in the Sugar Bowl.

Against Alabama in the SEC Championship, Fromm threw for a season-high 301 yards. Georgia needed a few more to avoid another embarrassing collapse in Atlanta against the Crimson Tide, but a 300-yard passing game versus a Nick Saban defense is still a very nice feat. The only other quarterbacks that posted 300 passing yards against Alabama in 2018 were Kyler Murray and Trevor Lawrence.

That’s good company to be in. Don’t be surprised if Fromm is competing with Lawrence in the Heisman Trophy race this fall. There’s a reason why Georgia elected to start Fromm over two 5-star quarterbacks the last two years (Jacob Eason and Justin Fields). 

It will be interesting to see how Fromm develops this summer without the stiff competition of the last two years. With former walk-on Stetson Bennett the front-runner to earn the backup role, it’s clearly Fromm’s job. Complacency could be a concern, but no competition will also give Fromm the ability to be the sole leader of the offense — a unit that has the potential to rival Alabama as the best in the SEC.

Other than Fromm, the best part of the Georgia offense is upfront. Offensive line coach Sam Pittman once again did a tremendous job on the recruiting trail to land several key pieces for the team’s future. That will give the position group depth, which is something it didn’t really have last season. The lack of depth upfront really hurt Georgia against Alabama and LSU.

Seth Emerson of The Athletic called both of the Bulldogs starting tackles, Andrew Thomas and Isaiah Wilson, potential first-round picks for the 2020 NFL Draft. Junior Ben Cleveland missed most of last season, but he will return to solidify one of the guard spots with Solomon Kindley.

Georgia lost several key pass-catchers and running back Elijah Holyfield to the NFL draft or the transfer portal during the offseason, but fellow back D’Andre Swift returns. Last season, he rushed for 1,049 yards during a year in which he wasn’t considered to be fully healthy. 

Sophomore James Cook is expected to reach bigger heights this fall as well. As it was, he led all Georgia players who had at least 40 carries with a 6.9 yards per carry average in 2018.

Even more importantly, Zamir White is supposed to return from an ACL injury. If healthy, Swift and White could be the new Georgia backfield duo while Cook gives the position needed depth.

Swift, especially if White and Cook are part of the running back rotation, could also continue to play on third downs and be more involved in the passing game. He caught 32 passes for 297 yards and three touchdowns last year.

There are some questions at wide receiver due to the departures of Mecole Hardman and Riley Ridley along with tight end Isaac Nauta, which have been magnified by the offseason dismissal of Jeremiah Holloman. But, for those left in the receiver room, the talent is there even if the track record isn’t.

Things may change once the season begins, but for now, the Bulldogs defense is still catching up to their offense. Whether or not this team wins a national championship won’t just depend on scoring points, but also improving on defense, especially against the run. In their three losses, Georgia allowed an average of 203.3 rushing yards per game.

But having an elite offense with a defense possessing some concerns isn’t all that different from the defending champions. Clemson is replacing its entire defensive line this summer, and while the Tigers are a program that can simply reload rather than rebuild, the unit is still not expected to be as great as it was the last two seasons.

Clemson plans to make up for that with Lawrence and all of the playmakers returning on offense.

Georgia will be counting on its offense in the same way to finally win that elusive national championship.

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