The first year of the Kirby Smart era didn’t do much to validate Georgia’s decision to fire a proven winner (current Miami coach Mark Richt) as part of yet another attempt by a Power 5 program to poach a Nick Saban disciple in the hope of capturing some form of the Alabama coach’s successful recipe. Smart led Georgia to eight wins in 2016, two fewer than what the Bulldogs notched in Richt’s final two seasons in Athens. They also suffered disappointing defeats to SEC bottom feeders Ole Miss and Vanderbilt.
Despite the slightly disappointing debut, Smart should be able to get his team into double-digit win territory in 2017. Georgia fans would be satisfied with nothing less. The biggest source of optimism is the return of talented running back tandem Nick Chubb and Sony Michel. The former could reclaim his status as one of the nation’s top rushers while mounting a case for the Heisman with some progress from Georgia’s offensive line (it ranked 101st and 113th, respectively, in Football Outsiders’ Adjusted Line Yards and Power Success Rate statistics in 2016), and the latter will help keep Chubb fresh by lightening his workload. Then there’s the Bulldogs’ passing game, which is trending upward with sophomore quarterback Jacob Eason back after logging a full season as the starter in 2016 and primed for an even larger second-year surge than Buechele. Georgia also has a favorable path in one of the worst divisions in the country; its SEC schedule looks manageable outside of road trips to Tennessee and Auburn.