HOOVER, Ala. — Like it or not, the spotlight is now firmly centered on Kirby Smart and his Georgia Bulldogs. The hype train is returning to Sanford Stadium, placing the Bulldogs back on the national map less than two years after long-time coach Mark Richt was fired.
Smart will be entering only his second year as head coach (at any level), but who cares? Georgia returns 10 defensive starters and a possible superstar quarterback — who is only a sophomore. Georgia is also months removed from signing the nation’s No. 3 recruiting class, which featured 18 ESPN 300 members and four five-star prospects.
The Bulldogs have the luxury of playing in an SEC East division that has spent the better part of the past few years being riddled with instability. Like with Tennessee last season, this is the year we take Georgia football seriously again.
Regardless of how truly inexperienced Smart is at running an entire program, the Bulldogs have become an early media darling and will likely be pegged by most of the scribes at the conclusion of SEC media days to win the East for the first time since 2012. Fair or not for a team that went 8-5 in Smart’s inaugural season, the Bulldogs look — on paper — like a team capable of representing the East in 2017.
“This team, this group is sold on what our staff and what myself believe in,” Smart told ESPN during the spring. “We’re in a better place [than last season].
“I like this team a lot better, too.”
Put last season’s growing pains and midseason lull in the trash. Those 13 games, which included home losses to Tennessee, Vanderbilt and Georgia Tech by a combined five points, are minor stains that can be scrubbed off Smart’s red-and-black Georgia polo with only a damp cloth.
According to Smart, there’s rejuvenation within this team. Jacob Eason, the former No. 1 quarterback prospect, is identifying defenses better and getting more comfortable with his offensive playbook. Future early-round draft pick Nick Chubb is back to 100 percent and projects to be one of the nation’s best running backs (again) in 2017. His sidekick, fellow 1,000-yard rusher Sony Michel, ain’t too bad, either.
Defensively, Smart has the luxury of a ton of experience and 10 returning starters. He has one of the country’s best linebacker corps, headlined by future early picks Roquan Smith and Lorenzo Carter, and a secondary that is a nickelback away from returning to the type of unit that allowed a measly 183.8 YPG through the air in 2016.