Welcome to Yahoo Sports’ 2018 college football preseason top 25. A poll that’s guaranteed to be wrong like every other preseason poll out there. Every day in August we’re going to reveal a new team in our top 25 culminating with the reveal of our No. 1 team on Aug. 25. And yes, it’s a team from the SEC.
No. 25 South Carolina, No. 24 Utah, No. 23 West Virginia, No. 22 Central Florida, No. 21 Texas, No. 20 USC, No. 19 Florida State, No. 18 Oregon, No. 17 Mississippi State, No. 16 TCU, No. 15 Michigan, No. 14 Boise State, No. 13 Notre Dame, No. 12 Auburn, No. 11 Michigan State, No. 10 Stanford, No. 9 Miami, No. 8 Penn State, No. 7 Oklahoma, No. 6 Wisconsin
No. 5 Georgia
2017 record: 13-2 (7-1)
Returning starters: 8 offense, 5 defense
Prove 2017 wasn’t a one-year wonder
With the way Kirby Smart has been recruiting at Georgia, there’s a lot of reason to believe the 2017 season wasn’t a fluke. After 10-win seasons in 2014 and 2015 under coach Mark Richt, Smart’s team went 8-5 in 2016.
The win total jumped by five games a year ago as Georgia won the SEC and was a couple of plays away from winning the national championship. Now that Georgia has a recent conference title and a College Football Playoff appearance, it’s time for the Bulldogs to sustain that success.
“This season for us is going to be simple. It’s going to be the measure of potential versus effectiveness,” Smart said at SEC media days. “And when I say that, a lot of people are like, yeah, every team has a certain amount of potential. I think potential is dormant ability. And I think effectiveness is what we get out of our potential. And we talk to our players all of the time, the pressure is really a privilege.
“You should feel privilege to have pressure to win games, to have expectations. Everybody is talking about the expectations. Last year this time, they were talking about the same expectations for the University of Georgia. I went back and reviewed my notes for this event, and it was the same thing. Georgia is expected to do this, to win the east, to win championships.”
“Pressure is a privilege” sounds like the latest in coach cliches. And it is. But there’s some applicable truth in there that Smart hopes to get through to his team. With six new starters on defense and a running game that needs to be recalibrated without Nick Chubb and Sony Michel, a lot of guys who were bit players a year ago are going to play significant roles.
But that shouldn’t be too much of an issue. Georgia had the No. 9 recruiting class in 2016 and moved up to No. 3 in 2017. This spring’s recruiting class was No. 1.
Replace the most dominant defensive player in the country (and more)
Roquan Smith was so fun to watch in 2017. The linebacker was all over the field, as evidenced by his 137 tackles. He was far and away Georgia’s tackling leader. Safety JR Reed was second on the team with 79 tackles.
Smith had 6.5 sacks and 7.5 tackles for loss as well. That’s a lot of production for Georgia to replace.
Natrez Patrick returns as a starter at one of the middle linebacker spots and should be the leader of the unit. The other three starting jobs are up for grabs. Quay Walker, Monty Rice and Tae Crowder could be the leaders for those three positions. It’s probably going to take a group effort to replace Smith’s production.
In addition to replacing Smith’s sacks, Georgia needs to find a couple other pass rushers. Davin Bellamy and Lorenzo Carter are both in the NFL too. They combined for 9.5 sacks. Georgia had just 21 sacks in Richt’s final year. The Bulldogs had 29 sacks in 2016 and 34 in 2017. Another increase is probably unreasonable, but LB D’Andre Walker has a chance at double-digit sacks in 2018. He had 5.5 sacks a year ago.
Will Jake Fromm hold off Justin Fields?
Jake Fromm was one of the more improbable success stories in 2017. He came to Georgia as a five-star recruit and was expected to make a significant impact at some point in his Georgia career. Few people expected that impact to start with the second game of the season.
After starter Jacob Eason (now sitting out the 2018 season after transferring to Washington) went down with a knee injury in the season-opener against Appalachian State, Fromm took over as the Bulldogs’ QB. He was 16-29 passing for 141 yards and a touchdown and an interception in Georgia’s one-point win at Notre Dame in his first start.
He got better from there. Fromm finished with over 2,600 yards passing and completed 62 percent of his passes and enters 2018 in Eason’s position — as the starter with a talented quarterback behind him.
Justin Fields is that talented backup. Fields was the No. 2 overall prospect in the class of 2018 according to Rivals and enrolled early at Georgia. Fields has drawn comparisons to Cam Newton. You may know Newton. He won a national title at Auburn. Fromm is the guy at Georgia, but Fields could force his way into some playing time.
“With our situation, we have two quarterbacks that are both really talented guys,” Smart said. “I am really excited about watching these two guys come out and lead our program and lead their units. They both have grown. They’ve both done a tremendous job of embracing that role, not only in the locker room, but out in the field in spring practice. And I think Jake and Justin are tremendous assets for our program.”
D’Andre Swift, RB: Swift was the third wheel in Georgia’s running back committee in 2017 and he was really, really good. As Chubb and Michel combined for over 2,500 yards rushing and 31 touchdowns, Swift had 81 carries for 631 yards and three touchdowns. That’s an average of 7.6 yards per carry.
With Chubb and Michel gone, Swift is now the leader in Georgia’s backfield. If he’s healthy, he should rush for over 1,000 yards and 10 touchdowns as Brian Herrien and Elijah Holyfield act as the complimentary backs. We’re interested to see if the ACL injury to five-star freshman Zamir White means more carries for Swift or Holyfield or Herrien take on bigger roles than expected.
Game to watch: Oct. 13 @ LSU
Like it always does, Georgia plays Auburn in 2018. That game is in Athens, so the Bulldogs look to have the edge there, especially if Auburn has a drastic home and road performance split like it did a year ago.
That makes the LSU game the biggest test for the Bulldogs. We’re not as bullish on LSU as some people are, but the Tigers still have a bunch of talent. Playing in Death Valley is never easy. If Georgia beats LSU and heads into its bye week at 7-0 or 6-1, Bulldog fans have to feel good about what’s to come the rest of the season.
Georgia beats LSU on the road and runs the table on the way to an SEC East championship and an SEC Championship game appearance. We’ll have a very good idea about where things stand in the East before September is over. Georgia plays at South Carolina on Sept. 8 and at Missouri on Sept. 22.
The LSU game is a loss and so are the trips to South Carolina and Missouri. Three conference losses in the first seven weeks of the season open the door for a team like Florida or the other two East teams mentioned above to swipe the division title.
Georgia is not going undefeated in the regular season. It’s possible, sure, but betting on it isn’t a good idea. Instead, let’s go with a loss somewhere on the schedule; 7-1 in the East and 11-1 overall will be plenty good enough for an SEC Championship game appearance and a shot to head to the College Football Playoff for the second-straight season.
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Nick Bromberg is a writer for Yahoo Sports.
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