The Georgia Bulldogs haven’t won college football’s national championship in four decades. Their futility—despite consistently ranking among the sport’s most elite programs—has risen to parody levels: “1980” (the year of the Dawgs’ last title) has become a curse word if said in the wrong way to a UGA fan. The Bulldogs recruit players at a higher level than arguably any other program. At worst, they’re right next to Alabama and Ohio State as the top talent-accumulating team in the country. Of course, Alabama wins a national title every two years or so, and OSU has racked up multiple championships in the past two decades. The Dawgs have only disappointment.
Even so, Georgia fans have plenty of reasons to feel optimistic about the year ahead—and, as usual, a few reasons to worry. In the immediate run-up to the 2021 season, the Dawgs are dealing with some glaring absences in their roster. In addition to star receiver George Pickens tearing an ACL, receiver/tight end hybrid Arik Gilbert, a five-star transfer from LSU, is also out. It’s not clear when he’ll return.
Another pass-catcher, tight end Darnell Washington, reportedly hurt himself in fall camp and might miss a blockbuster season opener against Clemson on Sept. 4. Same for safety Tykee Smith, an All-American who transferred in from West Virginia. The injury list is, for the moment, a real concern.
Despite those issues, UGA should feel good about its chances to get back to the mountaintop this year (or at least some time in the near future). Here’s a closer look at what the Dawgs have going for them.
No one is recruiting better than Georgia.
Alabama typically signs the No. 1-ranked recruiting class, but Georgia has recruited so well that it’s more or less even with the Crimson Tide in overall talent. In fact, in 2020, the Dawgs passed Bama in 247Sports’ Team Talent Composite, a measure of the star ratings of all the players on a team’s roster. Eighty percent of the Dawgs’ signees are rated four stars or better, a figure that’s just a hair behind Bama. Along with Ohio State, these two programs are operating at a higher level in talent acquisition than everyone else.
Recruiting pays dividends in terms of roster depth. Gilbert (a recent tight end recruit who’s technically now a receiver) and Washington are both out, and that would rob most teams of any production at tight end, but Georgia isn’t most teams. The Dawgs can swap in Brock Bowers, the No. 3 tight end recruit in the freshman class of 2021. Or they can think up ways to not need a tight end at all.
Smith’s injury at safety should be a huge deal—he’s an All-American, after all—but the Dawgs can still run out two four-stars at safety (Chris Smith and Lewis Cine) and surround them with ultra-talented cornerbacks to make their jobs relatively easy. Pickens’ absence at receiver might be the biggest issue of all, but even here, UGA is in a better position than most. Any number of the team’s other four- or five-star receivers could be due for a breakout.
UGA finally has a quarterback.
JT Daniels slinging it ⚡️ pic.twitter.com/kyTeTD3G5J
— ESPN College Football (@ESPNCFB) April 17, 2021
Georgia’s inability to field a superstar QB over the last 10 or 15 years has become something of a running gag on the college football internet. Some of the most sought-after QB recruits in America have come out of the state’s high school ranks and gone on to distinguished college careers. Auburn’s Cam Newton and Clemson’s Deshaun Watson and Trevor Lawrence are the most notable examples. Another is Justin Fields, who initially signed with Georgia but then transferred after one year of mostly sitting on the bench. He went on to start at Ohio State. Meanwhile, the Dawgs have trotted out some surprisingly mediocre QBs, including starting a former walk-on against Alabama in 2020.
Things should be better now. The Dawgs’ starter this fall is JT Daniels, the No. 2 QB in the class of 2018 who was injured at the start of last season. When Daniels finally got on the field, he was excellent, averaging 10 yards per throw and tossing 10 TDs against just two interceptions in four games—all wins. A healthy Daniels should be one of the very best passers in the sport. That’s an asset UGA has been lacking for a long time.
In theory, there’s some extra margin for error this year.
The No. 5 Dawgs have a blockbuster date with No. 3 Clemson in Week 1; it should be one of the best games of the year. UGA fans might look at their current injuries and absences and feel uneasy about what the Tigers might do on Sept. 4. But the strange reality is that UGA could lose that game, then drop another game against an SEC opponent, and still make the College Football Playoff—if they’re able to win the conference. (No two-loss team has ever made the field, but a two-loss SEC champion almost certainly would.)
Better yet, the SEC looks a hair more winnable than usual this year because Alabama might not dominate like it usually does. That’s good news for Georgia.
None of this will put Dawgs fans at ease.
They’ve seen this movie—high preseason ranking, lots of talent, the stars aligning—enough times to know that on-paper advantages don’t always mean that much when toe meets leather.
But the pieces are all in place, and because of UGA’s recruiting, they should be strong contenders beyond this season, too. Now they just need to win.
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