ATHENS — Dabo Swinney’s statement to ESPN in the immediate aftermath of last night’s National Championship Game said it all:
“If we can do it, anybody can do it!”
In fact, Clemson has done it three times now. Twice in the last three years and once a long while back in 1981. Interestingly, all three of the Tigers’ national titles have come with quarterbacks from Georgia under center — Trevor Lawrence of Cartersville, Deshaun Watson of Gainesville and Homer Jordan of Athens.
So, yes, Georgia can certainly win another national championship, too — and soon. They’re already posting odds for winning next year’s title out in Las Vegas, and the Bulldogs came out with the third-best odds at 12 to 1, tied with Ohio State. National champion Clemson was first at 9 to 5 and Alabama, its vanquished opponent from last night, was next at 5 to 2.
But I don’t think anybody who has watched Georgia closely these last few seasons needs Vegas odds to tell us that the Bulldogs should be in contention for the national championship the next couple of years. And 2019 has long looked like the year in which they should be poised for a big run.
In fact, I’ve long said Georgia was ahead of schedule these last two seasons under coach Kirby Smart. The run to the finals in 2017 was an unexpected and premature phenomena born from the decisions of a large group of NFL-caliber juniors to come back for their senior seasons. And 2018 always stood as a transition year for the Bulldogs, who entered it with a roster consisting of 68.2 percent freshman and sophomores.
Now that roster is laden with sophomores and juniors, many of whom had to be thrown into the fire this past season. The Bulldogs had seven first-time starters in 2018, and every one of those players will be back to man those positions this coming season.
Provided they don’t get beat out. Georgia’s 2019 recruiting class currently sits ranked No. 2 in the nation, and a dozen of those prospects already are on campus as early enrollees. The competition this spring and late-summer promises to be fast and furious, just like the last two years.
The Bulldogs’ strength should again be its offense. No team in America will have a more experienced quarterback than Georgia’s Jake Fromm, with 29 games under his belt. And he’ll be playing behind a line than returns four of its five starters and should be able to replace center Lamont Gaillard quite nicely with Trey Hill or Jamaree Salyer, among a number of the candidates.
Certainly losing leading receiver Riley Ridley, kick returner Mecole Hardman and tight end Isaac Nauta from the receiving corps will hurt. But, again, the Bulldogs have many capable replacements who have been waiting their turn. Not the least of them is controversial transfer Demetris Robertson, who might’ve disappointed in his first year from Cal but remains one of the team’s fastest players. And reinforcements such as 5-star signee Dominick Blaylock already are in the fold.
I’m among those who believe Elijah Holyfield’s departure may be more hurtful than many predict. One thousand-yard rushers are hard to come by. But in addition to the return of D’Andre Swift and James Cook comes the much-anticipated debut of former No. 1 player Zamir “Zeus” White. I remain skeptical about how effective a running back can be coming off back-to-back reconstructions of each ACL. But I’ve also seen many a back make complete recoveries without losing a step. That will be a storyline to follow closely heading into next season.
Where Georgia has to make the greatest strides is on defense. Let’s face it, that’s where the Bulldogs were let down in their last two meetings with Alabama. They were unable to protect two-score leads in the second half. Seven starters are back on that side of the ball, with a host of highly-recruited, rising sophomores poised to challenge for snaps.
Watching Clemson compete last night, it is evident that it’s in the trenches on the D-line where the Bulldogs have to show significant improvement. Whether they have the “hosses” to do so right away remains the biggest question I have for the squad that will take the field for Georgia in 2019.
The Dogs are set everywhere else. And they have the type of schedule that’s going bring both the challenge and attention that a national champion run will require. Highly-ranked teams from Notre Dame and Texas A&M come to town, along with road trips to Tennessee and Auburn and finishing at Georgia Tech under a new coach.
I don’t think Alabama’s lopsided loss signals an end to its run. As always, whoever plays in the SEC is ultimately going to have to get through the Crimson Tide, who will be reloading next year as well. But having led those guys for 119 of 120 minutes the last two seasons, Georgia knows it can compete with Nick Saban’s best teams.
Meanwhile, Clemson’s coach surely wasn’t referring to Georgia when he said what he said after that impressive 44-16 victory. But the Bulldogs should take his words to heart.
If Clemson can do it, the Georgia Bulldogs definitely can. And they should, very soon.
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