Over the last few weeks, the odds on the Georgia Bulldogs to be the last team standing in the College Football Playoff this year have dropped fairly dramatically. On Jan. 17, they were 33:1 to be crowned champions, with that number dropping to 25:1 on Jan. 24, now sitting at 20:1. So what has people starting to think that Kirby Smart can lead the Bulldogs to the promised land next January?
Arguably the best backfield in the nation
The Bulldogs faced the scary prospect of losing both of their top running backs in Nick Chubb and Sony Michel, but in a somewhat surprising move, especially for both of them, the duo decided to return to Georgia in 2017. In Chubb’s case, the fact that he played in 2016 off the back of a serious knee injury in 2015 makes the decision simultaneously surprising and understandable. On one hand, it wouldn’t have been a shock to see him leave for the NFL rather than risk another injury that could potentially put his future in doubt. The flip side to that, of course, is that due to battling back from the injury, 2016 was not his best year as a Bulldog, especially early on.
Chubb exploded onto the scene in 2014, taking over for an injured Todd Gurley midway through the year and proceeding to rush for 130 yards or more in all but one of the eight games he started. The one game he didn’t hit that total was a game where he saw just nine carries, and still rushed for 113 yards. Chubb forced a remarkable 63 missed tackles on 219 carries that year, and looked poised to be one of the most dominant running backs in college football in 2015. That very much looked to be the case as the year began, with Chubb rushing for 120 yards or more in the first five games of the year, and forcing 23 missed tackles on 92 carries before the injury ended his season one carry into the game against Tennessee.
Pre-injury Nick Chubb was all kinds of dominant. If he can get back to this level in 2017… pic.twitter.com/bTJemHlKnj
— Gordon McGuinness (@PFF_Gordon) February 7, 2017
2016 just wasn’t the same, and that shouldn’t really be a surprise given that he was coming off such a serious injury, the fact that he was even on the field and able to carry the ball 32 times in the season opener is pretty eye opening in itself. In the first eight games he played in this past season, Chubb forced just 19 missed tackles on 124 carries. Over his last five games though, he looked much closer to the Nick Chubb of old, forcing 20 missed tackles on 99 carries.
It’s not all about Chubb, and when the Bulldogs needed him last year, Sony Michel stepped up in a big way. He averaged 5.5 yards per carry, with an average of 3.1 of those yards coming after contact. Like Chubb, Michel has been pretty good at making defenders miss over the past three years, average a missed tackle forced once every 4.8 carries since he stepped onto the field as a freshman in 2014. Combining Michel will a fully healthy Nick Chubb makes this Georgia running game a pretty scary prospect for opposing defenses in 2017.
Progression from Jacob Eason?
True freshman quarterback Jacob Eason came into the season highly touted, and he took over as the team’s starting quarterback in the second game of the year against Nicholls State. His season had its highs and lows, so there are absolutely no guarantees that we will see him take a big step forward in 2017, but the signs that he could be a really special quarterback were there, with some really impressive throws throughout the year.
Jacob Eason's would be game winning TD throw v Tennessee pic.twitter.com/mpmp4bV41t
— Gordon McGuinness (@PFF_Gordon) February 1, 2017
This was dropped, but man what a throw by UGA freshman QB Jacob Eason pic.twitter.com/vXxOUQw1FO
— Gordon McGuinness (@PFF_Gordon) September 19, 2016
The big key for Eason will be improving how he plays under pressure. As a true freshman, he completed 62.1 percent of his passes for 2,036 yards, with 14 touchdowns and six interceptions on throws where he was kept clean. Things shifted entirely when he was put under pressure though, with his completion percentage dropping to 31.8 percent, only throwing for 396 yards with two touchdowns and two interceptions. If you were looking at his season using the NFL passer rating, Eason’s rating dropped from 91.2 without pressure to 45.5 when pressure got there.
What’s important now is that Eason has to take that next step and make more of those big-time throws and fewer mistakes. If he can do that, along with the strength of the Georgia running game, the offense should take a significant step forward this coming season.
Relative weakness of the SEC East
The SEC falling back toward the pack in college football has been a common take this season, and while in my opinion it’s somewhat overblown, the SEC East is clearly a significant step behind the SEC West. Any of Alabama, LSU or Auburn would be heavily favored to walk the SEC East and while that might seem like a knock on Georgia, it’s actually very good news for them. Florida won the SEC East with a 6-2 conference record last year, and with the talent the team is losing, including top two cornerbacks in Teez Tabor and Quincy Wilson, the Gators are likely to struggle in 2017.
No other team in the division had a better conference record than Georgia’s 4-4 mark, and they’ll feel good about their chances to improve on that, especially with star pass-rushers in Derek Barnett and Charles Harris leaving Tennessee and Missouri, respectively.
On paper at least, Georgia’s schedule is set up for them to start the year strongly. Their second game sees them travel to take on Notre Dame, and despite their struggles a year ago, it should provide an early season test for the Bulldogs. After that their biggest challenges are on the road at Tennessee and Florida, in two games that will likely be key in the race for the SEC East crown, and a late-season trip to Auburn that will give us a clear view of how much of a threat Georgia can be in the College Football Playoff race. If they can pass those tests on the road, they’ll likely find themselves in the SEC Championship against Alabama, LSU or a rematch against Auburn, and a win there would almost certainly see them with a spot in the playoff.
When you look at their potential to improve in 2017, along with the struggles on the other teams in their division, it’s not hard to see why their odds to be the last team standing have started to drop. That said, it’s absolutely key that they get the development they need out of Eason at quarterback, and let’s not gloss over the fact that Alabama in still the top team in the conference, and beating them — even in a one-off SEC Championship game — is no easy task.