With his first season in the books and a talented group coming back, the pressure is now on Georgia head coach Kirby Smart to deliver big.
Kirby Smart’s inaugural season in Athens was sort of an experiment: his first time as a head coach, a young but talented team, and a freshman phenom at quarterback learning on the job. No pressure was on him to win big, like it had for Mark Richt over the past several years.
That changes next season, as the Dawgs will likely be the favorites to win the SEC East, especially with the return of star running backs Nick Chubb and Sony Michel.
High preseason expectations are nothing new at Georgia, but living up to those have always been quite the struggle, and a major reason why Richt is now coaching at Miami. Two SEC East titles since 2006 and no conference championships in over a decade does not make for a happy Dawg fan base.
The maturation of Eason, who threw for 2,266 yards and 14 touchdowns as a rookie, will be a major point of emphasis for Georgia. But it will be the health of Chubb and Michel that makes the difference between a trip to Atlanta and another season of also-ran. The two have the ability to form the best backfield in college football, except staying on the field has been an issue.
The defense also got a major boost with the return of linebackers Lorenzo Carter and Davin Bellamy who, along with the plays they can make, will provide leadership on a unit that is full of young playmakers.
Georgia already looked like a different team in the 31-23 victory over TCU in the Liberty Bowl, with the defense containing an explosive Kenny Hill at quarterback and Eason making smart throws on his way to a two-touchdown, no interception game. Chubb and Michel were their usual selves, combining for 229 rushing yards.
A strong recruiting class – currently ranked No. 3 by Scout – will certainly add depth to the roster as well, while a manageable schedule – no Alabama or LSU from the West division – could make for a special season in just Smart’s second season.
How the inexperienced head coach handles the hype, both personally and outwardly toward his team, will determine how the 2017 season goes. Under Richt, multiple off-the-field issues railroaded seasons before they even started, and inexplicable losses – including an inability to consistently defeat Florida – would end all chances of reclaiming the glory that Georgia fans have been clamoring for since 1980.
The pressure is on, so will it be a new era in Athens, or the same ole Dawgs?