One of my best friends in Atlanta, who’s also a die-hard UGA fan, swears the Bulldogs will reach the 2017 Peach Bowl — otherwise known as this season’s College Football Playoff semifinal.
Is my friend delusional with his exuberant belief?
Perhaps a little bit, given UGA’s extensive graduation/NFL draft-entry losses along the offensive line (John Theus, Kolton Houston, Hunter Long) and defensive front seven (Jordan Jenkins, Sterling Bailey, James DeLoach, Chris Mayes, Jake Ganus … and outside linebacker Leonard Floyd).
However, the Bulldogs’ 2016 schedule — highlighted by home outings with Tennessee, Auburn, Georgia Tech and winnable roadies against transitioning Ole Miss, Missouri, South Carolina and Kentucky — probably wouldn’t rank in the top 5 most difficult scale, among SEC schools.
Throw in neutral-site outings against North Carolina and Florida — with both schools breaking in new quarterbacks — and it wouldn’t be shocking to see UGA (presuming reasonable health) go 11-2 or 12-1, depending on the opponent in the SEC title game.
It’s the major perk to playing in a watered-down East division.
Of course, this shouldn’t be new UGA head coach Kirby Smart’s greatest short-term concern, an all-or-nothing bid for the SEC East title.
On equal footing, Smart must establish a code of program expectations with his players (on-field/off-field); plus, the UGA coaches must find a way to accelerate Jacob Eason’s learning curve ahead of the 2017 season … when the national-title game comes to Atlanta.
Luckily, that timeline template for Eason — a 5-star quarterback from the Class of 2016 (below) — had already been established a decade ago.
Matthew Stafford was the quarterbacking jewel from the Class of 2006, following his sister to UGA from the suburbs of Dallas, Texas.
And then-head coach Mark Richt, on the heels of a 10-3 campaign in 2005 (including the SEC championship), capitalized on that goodwill with Dawg Nation by finding reps for the freshman Stafford in all 13 games — including relief appearances in four of the first seven outings (sharing time with Joe Cox and Joe Tereshinski III).
Of Stafford’s initial seven games, the future No. 1 overall pick (Detroit Lions, 2009) completed 47 of 93 passes for 582 yards, while accounting for two touchdowns (one rushing) and four interceptions. Middling numbers, for sure, but also enough for Stafford to morph into UGA’s full-time starter for the final six games — with per-outing averages of 195 yards passing, 1.3 touchdowns and 1.5 interceptions.
Of greater importance, in 2007, the experienced and rocket-armed sophomore took a sizable leap forward, accounting for 2,523 yards passing, 21 touchdowns and leading UGA (11-2 overall) to a No. 2 ranking by season’s end.
Coach Smart has access to a similar blueprint this fall. Whether he opts to start Eason, Greyson Lambert (1,959 yards passing, 13 touchdowns in 2015) or Brice Ramsey in the initial handful of games is, quite frankly, irrelevant to UGA’s long-term mission.
In the short term, just make sure Eason gets repetitions each game — including the Georgia Dome opener on Sept. 3 (vs. North Carolina) — essentially giving UGA fans a taste of the future at every turn.
It’s the major perk of coaching during the so-called “honeymoon” phase. It may represent the only time when Smart — a UGA alum, decorated defensive coordinator with Alabama (four national titles from 2009-15) and high-end recruiter (top-7 class in Year 1) — can do absolutely no wrong with 100 percent of the fan base.
(Outside of the Lambert and Ramsey families.)
Jay Clemons, the 2015 national winner for “Sports Blog Of The Year” (Cynopsis Media), has previously written for SI.com, The National Football Post, Bleacher Report and FOX Sports.