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Welcome to Yahoo Sports’ 2019 preseason Top 25. We’ll be featuring a new team in our Top 25 every day until Miami and Florida start the 2019 season Saturday. In each preview we’ll have an NFL draft prospect analysis by Yahoo Sports’ Eric Edholm and additional insight from Rivals writers who know the teams the best.
Previously: No. 25 Wisconsin | No. 24 TCU | No. 23 Nebraska | No. 22 Iowa State | No. 21 Missouri | No. 20 Iowa | No. 19 Mississippi State | No. 18 Michigan State | No. 17 Texas A&M | No. 16 Washington | No. 15 Miami | No. 14 Utah | No. 13 Auburn | No. 12 Penn State | No. 11 Oregon | No. 10 Florida | No. 9 Notre Dame | No. 8 Texas | No. 7 Michigan | No. 6 LSU | No. 5 Ohio State | No. 4 Oklahoma
No. 3 Georgia
2018 record: 12-2 (8-1)
Returning starters: 4 offense, 8 defense
Two new coordinators
We’ve discovered a few things in the first three years of Kirby Smart’s Georgia tenure. We’ve learned that Smart can recruit at a level equal to his former boss at Alabama. We’ve learned that Smart’s teams can win division titles and play for a national championship ... against that former boss.
And we’re now going to learn how Smart adapts with two new coordinators. Doesn’t that situation sound familiar too?
Defensive coordinator Mel Tucker and offensive coordinator Jim Chaney had been Smart’s coordinators since he arrived at Georgia ahead of the 2016 season. Tucker left in the offseason when he was offered the head coaching job at Colorado following Mike MacIntyre’s firing.
Chaney, meanwhile, headed north to be Tennessee’s offensive coordinator.
Chaney’s job switch was a bit of a surprise at the time. Georgia’s offense averaged over seven yards a play in 2018, it’s highest total in Chaney’s three seasons with the team. But Tennessee and former Georgia assistant coach Jeremy Pruitt offered a boatload of cash — $4.8 million over three seasons, to be exact — and Georgia clearly wasn’t inclined to match or exceed the offer to persuade Chaney to stay. Chaney had made just under $1 million in 2018.
In their place are coaches who were on Georgia’s staff in 2018. New offensive coordinator James Coley was the team’s co-offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach in 2018, while defensive coordinator Dan Lanning was the team’s outside linebackers coach a year ago. Both coaches will retain their positional coach responsibilities in 2019.
“I think that confidence is what allows you to promote in-house,” Smart said at SEC media days. “And if I didn't have confidence in the men in the room in the building, I probably go outside and look and try to find the best guy that gives Georgia the best opportunity to win. But I think we did some good things last year and the years past, and the men in that room were part of that.
“I think any time you can promote from within, it gives the structure of the organization hope. It gives the guy beneath that guy the opportunity that, if I assert myself and I do good things, then I have an opportunity to grow here. I don't have to leave here to grow. If you hire good people and you grow them, then you want to keep them in your organization.”
Jake Fromm: The SEC’s No. 2 QB?
The lack of serious change on the offensive side of the ball should mean good things for QB Jake Fromm, who already has a season with Coley.
Fromm was exceptional as a sophomore in 2018, completing over 67 percent of his passes for 2,761 yards and 30 touchdowns to just six interceptions. With D’Andre Swift back at running back, opposing defenses are going to have to account for an explosive running game again and can’t key on Fromm.
However, Fromm will need some weapons to emerge at wide receiver. Wide receivers Riley Ridley and Mecole Hardman are off to the NFL and so is tight end Isaac Nauta. Jeremiah Holloman, the top returning receiver for 2019, was dismissed during the spring. Not counting Swift, who had 32 catches in 2018, Georgia’s leading returning pass catcher is now tight end Charlie Woerner, who had 11 catches for 148 yards.
Two transfers should step in right away. Demetris Robertson looks poised for a much bigger role at wide receiver and Georgia landed Lawrence Cager as well.
Another great season for Fromm would also present an interesting NFL decision and strengthen a QB class that could look very interesting with Oregon senior Justin Herbert and Tua Tagovailoa potentially declaring for the draft after the season.
“We had a guy come speak the other day to our team, talking about characteristics that scouts look for,” Smart said in July. “[Fromm] checks every single box on that list. He's won a lot of football games. He's thrown touchdowns and hasn't thrown interceptions. All of those qualities he has are going to give him a chance of success whenever he chooses to go to the NFL.”
A loaded defense
With Smart entering his fourth year with the Bulldogs, all but the redshirt seniors on the team are players that his staff recruited to Athens. And when you recruit at such a high level like Georgia does, you have talent that contributes right away.
Georgia’s defense returns six starters, but three of those players were the team’s three leading tacklers in 2018. Safeties Richard LeCounte and JR Reed form the best safety combination in the SEC, and linebacker Monty Rice can do anything and everything Georgia needs.
The loss of DE/LB Brenton Cox, who transferred to Florida recently, hurts but Georgia should get immediate contributions from linebacker Jermaine Johnson, the No. 2 junior college recruit in the class of 2019. You probably recognize his name from Netflix’s “Last Chance U.”
The biggest question for Georgia’s defense is generating a pass rush. The Bulldogs had just 24 sacks in 2018 — the team’s lowest total in Smart’s tenure — and no returning player had more than two sacks. But with so many four and five-star recruits on the defense, finding a few pass rushers shouldn’t be extremely difficult.
Biggest game: at Auburn (Nov. 16)
This was a tough call between Notre Dame’s visit on Sept. 21 and the trip to Auburn. And the conference road game won out. Georgia’s undefeated season went down the tubes in 2017 with a 40-17 thrashing at the hands of the Tigers, but the Bulldogs got Auburn back a few weeks later in the SEC title game.
While Auburn isn’t the favorite for the SEC West by any means, there’s a decent chance Georgia could be 9-0 again heading into the state of Alabama.
RB Zamir White
Swift is the obvious choice here after his turn as a feature back in 2018. But the Bulldogs have been best over the past three seasons with multiple running backs capable of taking over a game. Swift played No. 3 to Sony Michel and Nick Chubb, and then split time with Elijah Holyfield in 2018 as both ran for over 1,000 yards.
White could replace Holyfield’s production. The five-star recruit in the class of 2018 missed the season because of an ACL tear. By all accounts he’s been healthy and productive in Georgia’s fall camps and should contribute right away — even if he’s only getting five or 10 touches per game to start. Georgia fans have super-high expectations for White. He could fulfill them. But a little patience isn’t a bad idea.
Biggest question mark
From Anthony Dasher at Rivals’ UGASports.com: Smart must find replacements for his top four wideouts from a season ago, a group that includes early NFL entries Riley Ridley and Mecole Hardman, along with senior Terry Godwin and Jeremiah Holloman, who was kicked off the team for allegedly hitting an ex-girlfriend.
Tyler Simmons (nine catches a year ago) is the top returning WR from a production standpoint, meaning some newcomers will have to come through.
UGA Sports’ breakout player
WR Demetris Robertson
The former five-star recruit who transferred to Georgia from Cal did not catch a pass last year but had 50 receptions for 767 yards and seven touchdowns his freshman season with the Bears. He’s been able to produce before.
Top 2020 NFL draft prospect
OT Andrew Thomas
From Yahoo Sports NFL draft analyst Eric Edholm: The 6-foot-5, 320-pound Thomas was a freshman starter at right tackle for the 2017 Bulldogs team that lost to Alabama in the national title game, and he switched over to left tackle the following year after 2018 first-rounder Isaiah Wynn left. It has been a banner two years for Thomas, an All-SEC coaches’ first-team selection last year.
With a strong junior season in 2019, Thomas has a chance to emerge as the OT1 in the 2020 NFL draft. He displays easy athleticism for a man of his size and has the flexibility and light feet of a tight end 50 or 60 pounds smaller. He can extend his long arms and lock out defenders, even quicker ones.
There are some holes in his game, however, as Thomas can play out of control and fly past defenders (see Texas game). He needs to learn how to play more under control and harness his rare gifts better. But with time, this massive man could soon start hitting his peak as a player. We think he has an excellent chance to end up in Round 1 with continued progress.
WR Lawrence Cager
You know by now that Georgia needs to replace a lot of wide receiver production. And Cager should get a chunk of that. The Miami transfer had 21 catches for 374 yards and six touchdowns in 2018.
The Bulldogs should be favored in every game but the trip to Auburn. And, depending how Auburn’s season goes, could easily be favored there, too. This is our SEC East champion and an 11-1 regular season doesn’t feel like a reach. We’re expecting a third postseason matchup for Smart’s Georgia team against Alabama. Will it be the charm?
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Nick Bromberg is a writer for Yahoo Sports.
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