Dr. Saturday's 2017 Top 25 Countdown: No. 16 Georgia

Dr. Saturday
Georgia needs <a class="link rapid-noclick-resp" href="/ncaaf/players/264537/" data-ylk="slk:Jacob Eason">Jacob Eason</a> to take a step forward as a sophomore. (AP)
Georgia needs Jacob Eason to take a step forward as a sophomore. (AP)

August is here and that means college football season is starting soon. The first games of the 2017 season kick off Aug. 26. And as it quickly approaches, we have 25 days to preview each of the 25 teams in our updated Dr. Saturday 2017 preseason poll. Check here every day to find out who we think the 25 best teams in the country will be. Fair warning, however. We’re probably going to be wrong.

Previous entries: No. 17 FloridaNo. 18 South Florida, No. 19 Kansas State, No. 20 TexasNo. 21 Miami, No. 22 Notre DameNo. 23 NorthwesternNo. 24 Washington StateNo. 25 North Carolina

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2016 record: 8-5
Returning starters: 7 offense, 10 defense

Biggest non-conference game: Sept. 9 at Notre Dame
Biggest conference game: Oct. 28 vs. Florida

Key returning player: RB Nick Chubb
Key departed player: WR Isaiah McKenzie

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• Eight wins is a down year at Georgia, but positive things happened in Kirby Smart’s first season.

Mark Richt won at least eight games in all but one of his 15 seasons in Athens and Richt was fired. Georgia expects big things, but it seems like fans are trying to be positive about Smart putting his own stamp on the program (which seems kind of silly after complaining about not winning enough toward the end of Richt’s tenure, but … ) and keep things in perspective about the transformation (I didn’t say rebuild!) it is going through.

Smart’s first year was a little weird. There were the almost-losses to Nicholls and Missouri, a blowout at the hands of Ole Miss, a last-second heartbreaker against Tennessee and losses to Vanderbilt and rival Georgia Tech. But there was also the win over North Carolina, a big upset of Auburn when the Tigers were ranked No. 8 in the nation, plus a solid bowl win over TCU.

All the while, Georgia found out it has a future star at quarterback in Jacob Eason. Eason initially split time with Virginia graduate transfer Greyson Lambert, but pretty quickly assumed the starting role. He took his lumps over the course of the year, but Eason — without much help at receiver — showed what made him the top quarterback in the country in the class of 2016. He ended the year with 2,430 yards, 16 touchdowns and eight interceptions. His completion percentage — 55.1 percent — absolutely has to improve, but those numbers aren’t too shabby for a true freshman in the SEC.

On the other side of the ball, Georgia was really solid, finishing the year fourth in the SEC and No. 16 nationally in total defense. And almost everybody — 10 of 11 starters — are back in 2017 with an abundance of top-tier recruits providing an influx of talent to the roster. The defensive line especially is a strength. It should be one of the stronger units in the SEC.

All told, after a 4-4 start, the Bulldogs finished the year winning four of their final five games. That’s also a positive moving into 2017.

• Georgia has the best running back duo in the country, but Nick Chubb and Sony Michel can’t do it all.

Let’s start with what we know: Chubb and Michel are both really, really good. The two have combined for 5,835 rushing yards and 46 touchdowns — 3,424 yards and 29 TDs from Chubb and 2,411 yards and 17 TDs from Michel — over the past three seasons.

Georgia tailbacks Sony Michel (L) and Nick Chubb (R) have combined for 5,835 rushing yards in three seasons. (AP)
Georgia tailbacks Sony Michel (L) and Nick Chubb (R) have combined for 5,835 rushing yards in three seasons. (AP)

Michel has been really productive, but Chubb was special as a true freshman in 2014 when he gained 1,547 yards and scored 14 times. He was on an even better pace to begin the 2015 season — more than 700 yards through five games — when he went down with a gruesome leg injury. He just hasn’t quite looked the same since. In 2016, Chubb’s numbers were good (1,130 yards and eight scores) but his yards per carry dropped from 7.4 in his first two years to 5.0. But that all can’t be attributed to the injury.

UGA’s offensive line struggled in 2016 and will have three new starters in 2017. Those spots will likely be replenished with young talent. Smart said this week he could approach the offensive line like he did the quarterback position in 2016: Start things off with a veteran but throw the youngster into the fire early on.

“It’s a critical decision,” Smart said. “We’ve always said we want to play the guys who give us the best opportunity to win. Well in game one that may not be the same as game two, three, four, five. So when we make those decisions we make them based on who’s going to be the best guy down the road.

“Very similar to Jacob and Greyson last year. We’re trying to decide who’s going to be the best guy down the road. It doesn’t mean that guy’s going to start right away. It just means that guy’s going to be ready to play and going to be developed.”

Steadier offensive line play will be crucial because the run game chugging along at a high level opens everything else up for the offense. It also takes some pressure off Eason, who needs to continue to develop. Like any quarterback, Eason was at his best when the opposing defense was keyed in on the running backs. Leading receiver Isaiah McKenzie left for the NFL, but Terry Godwin and tight end Isaac Nauta are back, along with deep threat Riley Ridley. UGA also has to find a way to get the ball into former five-star recruit Mecole Hardman’s hands. Eason has options.

• The SEC East seems like it’s there for the taking once again.

We have Florida at No. 17 in our Top 25, so it’s pretty clear that things are tight at the top of the division with Georgia having a slight edge. The overall depth of the East should be better this year, but it’s still not at the same level as the West. Speaking of the West, UGA got a nice draw with Mississippi State as its first conference opponent of the year (after a highly-anticipated trip to South Bend in Week 2). After hosting MSU, UGA has five straight division games that will give it a nice chance to build up some wins before entering the meat of the schedule.

But when you look at the schedule, UGA’s toughest conference games all come on the road: Tennessee, Florida (in Jacksonville) and Auburn. That’s not an easy go, but those games really look like toss-ups on paper with the trip to Auburn being the toughest. So if the Bulldogs beat the teams they’re supposed to at home and win two of those tough road games, they could be on the path to Atlanta. Florida won the East at 9-4 (6-2) last year. Georgia can do that.

For more Georgia news, visit UGASports.com.

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Sam Cooper is a writer for the Yahoo Sports blogs. Have a tip? Email him or follow him on Twitter!

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