Per S&P+, there is a 64% chance Missouri is 1-1 after two games, a 30% chance the Tigers are 2-0, and a 6% chance they’re 0-2. After a tuneup against EMU comes the first huge home test of the year. Here are some things you should know about Georgia, based on my SB Nation preview on the Dawgs.
1. Mizzou will likely be facing a freshman QB in his first road start
Georgia's schedule features North Carolina, Missouri, Ole Miss, and Tennessee among the first five games, and quarterback is still unsettled. The options are either last year's iffy duo (Greyson Lambert and Brice Ramsey, who did average a tolerable 7 yards per attempt) or this year's new toy, five-star freshman Jacob Eason. Eason appears to have the upper hand and boasts every tool imaginable. But true freshmen tend to look like true freshmen, and that's one hell of an early slate. [...]
The opening stretch is ruthless. Four of the Dawgs' first five games are projected within one possession, and while UGA is projected to win three of those four, any early struggle at quarterback or in the trenches could lead to a 3-2 or 2-3 start.
After that, Georgia has an exceedingly manageable slate.
Georgia has Nick Chubb, star recruits everywhere, and what basically amounts to a blue-chip head coach in Kirby Smart, Nick Saban’s right-hand man for nearly a decade. But the Dawgs will also likely have a freshman behind center. And in a recent scrimmage, he indeed looked like a freshman. If Eason indeed starts, Mizzou can take advantage of this.
(Hell, if he doesn’t start, that means one of last year’s guys — Lambert, Ramsey — is instead, and Mizzou might be able to take advantage of that, too.)
If Mizzou can bait a shaky quarterback into some shaky throws and create some easy points off of it, the Tigers could be in good shape.
Of course, you have to make Georgia throw first.
2. The Dawgs will probably have a healthy Nick Chubb
189 FBS backs rushed at least 90 times in 2015. Nine had an opportunity rate of at least 47 percent, 11 averaged at least 8.5 highlight yards per opportunity, and only Chubb did both. Granted, he did a lot of damage against ULM and Southern (combined: 31 carries, 251 yards), but he did even more damage against top-20 Vanderbilt and Alabama defenses (39 carries, 335 yards).
Chubb's return would have made this a viable offense even with Schottenheimer still in charge. He's that good. And it appears he will be pretty close to 100 percent when the season begins.
He will need to be.
We won’t know until we see him against North Carolina, but indications are that Nick Chubb will be Nick Chubb this year, or something very close to it. He was incredible for the Dawgs when healthy, and more importantly, he hid a lot of weaknesses.
Even with iffy quarterback play (not to mention smaller, unproven receivers) and a Schottenheimer at offensive coordinator, Georgia averaged 8.3 yards per play over the first month of last season. If Chubb is 100%, QB might not be much of an issue.
3. The front seven is very thin
It didn't appear coordinator Jeremy Pruitt got along particularly well with Mark Richt, but after improving UGA's ratings from 36th to 17th in Def. S&P+, he pulled the Dawgs up to 11th. Georgia was efficient, particularly against the run, and basically the only weakness was an iffy early-downs pass rush.
Smart and new coordinator Mel Tucker inherit a lineup that is stocked in the back but potentially thin up front. Five of last year's top seven tacklers on the line are gone, and while the two returnees (Trenton Thompson, John Atkins) are enormous and talented, no other lineman recorded more than 3 tackles in 2015. It's possible that the rotation will feature only one upperclassman (Atkins, a junior), and while there are plenty of blue-chippers, experience is a good thing.
There is quite a bit of rebuilding going on up front. With the recent dismissal/transfer of Tim Kimbrough, the Dawgs are replacing not only the five linemen mentioned above, but also last year’s top four tacklers at linebacker. (Plus, Atkins has been slowed by injury in fall camp.)
Now, Richt recruited incredibly well here (and most everywhere else), so the two-deep will still be stocked with former blue-chippers. But if Missouri’s defense is holding up, and the Tiger run game is at least a little bit sturdy, Mizzou could have the fresher defense in the game’s latter stages.
(Three games into this preview series, and we’re already seeing just how important a decent run game could be for Missouri. It’s always important, but it could make the difference between a 1-2 start and at least a shot at 3-0. No pressure, Alex Ross ... and the new offensive line.)
4. Here’s to hoping Mizzou can run the ball a little bit
The SEC is loaded at safety, and Georgia's make that even more true.
Quincy Mauger and Dominick Sanders combined for 8.5 tackles for loss, six INTs, and 11 break-ups last season, and if nickel back Rico McGraw builds off of a promising freshman campaign, Georgia will have one of the best safety units in a great safety conference.
If you've got an improved pass rush and a great set of safeties, your cornerbacks have a reasonably easy job. And in theory, juniors Aaron Davis and Malkom Parrish should be up to this less-than-impossible task. They made a lot of plays near the line themselves, and sophomore Juwuan Briscoe should provide a little bit of depth.
Plus, there's a wildcard in Mecole Hardman, a blue-chip freshman who has yet to occupy a defined position but could be used in the secondary, in the receiving corps, and as a kick-blocking weapon on special teams.
Since this preview came out, UGA secured the graduate transfer of Alabama’s Maurice Smith; at worst, he provides more depth (which was a little bit of a question mark), and at best he makes a UGA nickel formation terrifying.
5. Don’t kick to Davis or McKenzie
The return game is a strength, especially on punts, where Isaiah McKenzie and Reggie Davis combined for three scores.
But the legs are a total mystery. Quarterback Brice Ramsey is uniquely strong in the punting department, but Marshall Morgan's departure leaves a void in both place-kicking and kickoffs. He struggled a bit in 2015, but he was at least a replacement-level guy at his positions. There's no guarantee UGA will be any better this fall.
Special teams had a huge impact on last year’s Missouri-Georgia game, though it was more “bad Missouri” than “good Georgia.” It could have an impact again.
6. Georgia’s swinging for the fences
In 15 years, Richt engineered seven top-10 finishes; the Dawgs had only pulled that off 10 times in the 51 years before him. Georgia won 50 games in his final five years, complete with four S&P+ top-15 rankings and two AP top-10 finishes. The Dawgs came within an eyelash of the BCS Championship in 2012.
After the next hint of a true (and brief) drop-off -- UGA won 10 games in 2015 but fell to 32nd in S&P+ -- the school sent Richt packing. I wasn't particularly impressed.
Nick Saban's impossible consistency has driven fanbases and administrations throughout the SEC insane. Richt was fired for not being as successful as him, and LSU's Les Miles nearly suffered the same fate.
Following this line of thinking, it makes sense that Georgia would replace Richt with what they hope is the Next Saban: longtime Alabama defensive coordinator (and UGA grad) Smart.
The 40-year-old product of Bainbridge has an impeccable résumé. ... He will operate in one of the most fertile recruiting areas of the country, and he will get complete, desperate support from the athletic department and the state government.
And he better win. Immediately.
A 15-year marriage with Richt ended because of a bad month, bad luck, and the opportunity to get Smart before someone else did. Georgia is putting a lot of faith in a first-time head coach, and he’s got an interesting 2016 ahead. He is simultaneously under a ton of pressure (if the last guy got fired after winning 10 games a year, you better win 11) and facing at least a tiny grace period. Tennessee is the nearly unanimous favorite in the SEC East this year, and most seem to acknowledge that Georgia’s early schedule could lead to a slow start and a strong finish.
Still, Mizzou could apply a ton of pressure to the Dawgs in this game. It will depend on how much the Tigers can get in the UGA quarterback’s head (whoever he is), how much they can force the ball out of Nick Chubb’s hands, and how much they can run the ball. If they could have run the ball even a little bit last year, they’d have stolen the game in Athens.
S&P+ says Georgia by 7.5, but it’s not hard to see a wide range of outcomes in this one, from “far easier UGA win” to “Mizzou upset.”