Coming off a season that ended in the College Football Playoff National Championship, Georgia will enter the 2018 campaign as the favorite to win the SEC East.
But that means the Bulldogs will get everyone’s best shot now that there is a target on their back.
While Georgia doesn’t have a non-conference opponent like Notre Dame, it does draw SEC West opponent LSU. And the annual Auburn game should once again be a good one.
With fewer than three months to go before the start of the 2018 season, here is how each of Georgia’s opponents rank in strength.
12. Austin Peay Governors (Sept. 1 at Sanford Stadium in Athens)
The Governors missed out on the FCS playoffs but finished the 2017 season just outside of the subdivision's top 25. In fact, Austin Peay was second in points outside of the top 25, putting it at 27th. Austin Peay lost to only one FCS program last season but dropped its game against all three FBS opponents.
Austin Peay was competitive against Cincinnati in a 26-14 loss. But the Governors lost to Miami (Ohio) 31-10 and to Central Florida 77-33. Austin Peay returns a lot of its play-makers, including quarterback Jeremiah Oatsvall and running back Ahmaad Tanner. Defensive lineman Jaison Williams tallied 9.5 sacks a season ago.
11. Massachusetts Minutemen (Nov. 17 at Sanford Stadium in Athens)
Massachusetts’ 4-8 record in 2017 is a bit deceiving. While the Minutemen dropped their first six games, it was by a combined 43 points, or just over a touchdown per game. Among those losses, Massachusetts nearly upset Tennessee in a 17-13 loss. Later in the year, the Minutemen played Mississippi State competitively in a 34-23 defeat.
Andrew Ford is an accurate quarterback who threw for 2,924 yards, 22 touchdowns and only four interceptions. Receiver Andy Isabella was the beneficiary of Ford’s throws as he accounted for 1,020 yards and 10 touchdowns. UMass returns a lot of other pieces, too, and should show considerable improvement. With that in mind, Georgia should be glad it gets the Minutemen late in the year.
10. Middle Tennessee State Blue Raiders (Sept. 15 at Sanford Stadium in Athens)
The Blue Raiders were a team devastated by injuries a year ago. Among those injuries they had to deal with was with quarterback Brent Stockstill, who missed six games. With Stockstill, the Blue Raiders went 5-2. Without him, they went 2-4. Stockstill is a statistic machine when healthy. The son of head coach Rick Stockstill, he has thrown for 8,939 yards and 77 touchdowns in his career.
Middle Tennessee State also returns experience on defense, including linebacker Khalil Brooks. Brooks recorded a whopping 17 tackles for loss and 7.5 sacks a season ago. The Blue Raiders defeated Missouri two years ago and would love nothing more than to give Georgia a headache early in the season.
9. Vanderbilt Commodores (Oct. 6 at Sanford Stadium in Athens)
Just when it seemed Vanderbilt was poised to take that proverbial next step it fell flat with a 5-7 record. The Commodores got an early win over Kansas State before SEC play caught up to them. Drubbings against Alabama and Georgia occurred early, and the Commodores could never recover. Making matters worse for defensive-minded head coach Derek Mason is the fact only four starters return on that side of the ball.
Running back Ralph Webb is also gone from the roster. But Vanderbilt does get quarterback Kyle Shurmur back, and he has steadily grown into a capable passer in the conference. Last season against Georgia, Shurmur threw for 264 yards and three touchdowns.
8. Tennessee Volunteers (Sept. 29 at Sanford Stadium in Athens)
There wasn’t a bigger dumpster fire in college football in 2017 than Tennessee. The Volunteers limped to a 4-8 finish that saw Butch Jones fired before the season ended. The never-ending coaching search didn’t help, with the Volunteers becoming a laughing stock across the country.
Eventually, Tennessee landed on former Georgia and Alabama defensive coordinator Jeremy Pruitt to lead the program. His hiring should help improve a Tennessee defense that finished 10th in the SEC at 412.9 yards per game. The Volunteers do have a quarterback competition brewing between Jarrett Guarantano and Stanford graduate transfer Keller Chryst.
7. Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets (Nov. 24 at Sanford Stadium in Athens)
The Yellow Jackets felt optimistic about their defense entering last season, considering a decent amount of experience returned. Instead, Georgia Tech struggled quite a bit on that side of the ball. Replacing Ted Roof is former Appalachian State defensive coordinator Nate Woody, who is implementing a 3-4 scheme.
While the coordinator change could help in the long run, Georgia Tech is dealing with seven starters gone from the defense. This could be a team that, once again, gives up a lot of points. But on a week-to-week basis, Georgia Tech is tough to defend on the offensive end. Quarterback TaQuon Marshall and running back KirVonte Benson should post some big numbers in ACC play.
6. Kentucky Wildcats (Nov. 3 at Kroger Field in Lexington, Kentucky)
Kentucky seems to routinely be a trendy pick to break out. And each year, the Wildcats wind up around the same middle-of-the-pack spot. With Stephen Johnson and Drew Barker gone at quarterback, head coach Mark Stoops has a wide-open battle at this position. Terry Wilson and Gunnar Hoak appear to be the top contenders.
That stated, the offense will run through running back Benny Snell, who totaled 1,333 yards and 19 touchdowns as a sophomore. Kentucky has some play-makers on defense, too. Linebacker Josh Allen is an NFL first-round prospect, and safety Mike Edwards is talented with experience. It’s just a matter of Kentucky finally putting it all together for once.
5. Missouri Tigers (Sept. 22 at Faurot Field in Columbia, Missouri)
Missouri was a different team by the end of the 2017 season. But even then, the Tigers started this turnaround when they came to Athens and were blown out. Quarterback Drew Lock, who could be one of the top NFL prospects in 2019, threw for 253 yards and four touchdowns against the Bulldogs, which included two 63-yard bombs to Emanuel Hall.
While J’Mon Moore is gone, Hall will be back as one of Lock’s go-to targets. Terry Beckner returns as one of the SEC’s better defensive linemen. And the linebacking corps will feature Terez Hall, Cale Garrett and Brandon Lee, who combined for 27.5 tackles for loss. Experience doesn’t always equal improvement, but Missouri does have some talented pieces to work with.
4. Florida Gators (Oct. 27 at TIAA Bank Field in Jacksonville, Florida)
Florida reached the SEC Championship game twice under head coach Jim McElwain. But with the SEC East down those seasons, and with Alabama waxing the Gators both times, it didn’t matter. Making it worse was the fact that Florida underperformed considerably through the first half of the season, with McElwain making an unsubstantiated claim that he received death threats.
In comes head coach Dan Mullen, who had considerable success at Mississippi State relative to the program’s history. And Mullen will have some talented players to coach in year one. Safety Chauncey Gardner-Johnson will lead Florida's secondary. Cece Jefferson and Jabari Zuniga have both made plenty of plays up front on the defensive line. Linebacker David Reese, who had 102 tackles a year ago, is back and could thrive in defensive coordinator Todd Grantham’s scheme. Florida’s biggest question will be on the offensive side of the ball. The Gators are still looking for a quarterback to go with out of Feleipe Franks, Kyle Trask and Emory Jones.
3. South Carolina Gamecocks (Sept. 8 at Williams-Brice Stadium in Columbia, South Carolina)
Will Muschamp knows defense. And even though the Gamecocks lose a lot on that side of the ball, it would tough to assume that they will all of a sudden be easy to move the ball against. Inside linebacker T.J. Brunson is coming off an impressive Outback Bowl against Michigan, which saw him tally 13 tackles and two sacks. Jamyest Williams, a former Georgia recruit, could be in line for a breakout season.
On offense, South Carolina will look for significant improvement. Muschamp fired offensive coordinator Kurt Roper and promoted Bryan McClendon, the co-offensive coordinator and receivers coach, to the position. McClendon, a former Georgia player and assistant, will rely quite a bit on the connection from quarterback Jake Bentley to receiver Deebo Samuel in a more uptempo system. The Bentley-Samuel duo could be one of the best in the SEC, if not the nation. While the passing game could flourish under McClendon, the Gamecocks will need to find better production from its rushing attack.
2. LSU Tigers (Oct. 13 at Tiger Stadium in Baton Rouge, Louisiana)
While LSU checks in at No. 2 on this list, there are still plenty of concerns about where this team will finish in 2018. The defense, however, should still be one of the top groups in the SEC. The Tigers return potential NFL first-round pick Devin White, who finished the 2017 season with 133 tackles, 13.5 tackles for loss and 4.5 sacks. Andraez “Greedy” Williams could also be a first-rounder with a strong season as a shutdown cornerback. Williams, as a redshirt freshman, posted six interceptions a year ago, which tied for the SEC lead.
While the defense should be strong, how the offense moves the ball will be a question mark from the start. Derrius Guice is gone, which means LSU doesn’t return a running back who scored a touchdown last season. Ohio State graduate transfer Joe Burrow could wind up LSU’s starting quarterback now that Danny Etling is gone. Other options include Myles Brennan and Justin McMillan. The Tigers will also break Texas Tech transfer receiver Jonathan Giles into the fold. Giles, who sat out the 2017 season due to NCAA rules, totaled 1,158 yards and 13 touchdowns with the Red Raiders in 2016.
1. Auburn Tigers (Nov. 10 at Sanford Stadium in Athens)
Auburn was the lone team to defeat Georgia in the 2017 regular season. And while the Tigers suffered plenty of losses on both sides of the ball, they still should be the toughest opponent on the schedule this year. Quarterback Jarrett Stidham proved to be deadly accurate in Auburn’s regular season win and finished last season with an SEC-best 66.5 completion percentage. Georgia was able to rattle Stidham with some pressure in the SEC Championship, however.
Auburn is also tasked with replacing Kerryon Johnson and Kamryn Pettway, although Kam Martin is a talented running back who should be up for the challenge. Three offensive linemen left, too, including Braden Smith. The defense, which returns six starters, should be stout up front with Derrick Brown and Marlon Davidson leading the charge.