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Ashway: Could this [finally] be Georgia’s year?
Denton Ashway
DENTON ASHWAY

Might this be the year?

Will the 2021 college football season be remembered as the year Georgia finally brought the national championship trophy back to Athens?

Or will this be another year which ends with the Bulldog Faithful muttering that familiar lament, “Things happened.”

They started last spring, when top receiver George Pickens tore his ACL, ending his season well before it started. August brought the news that starting center Warren Ericson had broken his hand. His snapping hand, of course. Not much value in having a snapper who can’t snap.

Just last week, huge tight end Darnell Washington and defensive back Tykee Smith were felled by foot injuries, joining starting tight end John FitzPatrick. Not to mention the continuing saga of Arik Gilbert, a gifted athlete who continues to be troubled by personal issues.

Yes, every team fights through issues during preseason camp, but Georgia’s now at the point where they evoke a resigned “here we go again.”

Georgia doesn’t need to get lucky to win it all. But it wouldn’t hurt. And it would be less of a challenge following a stretch without any bad luck.

Still, Bulldog Nation has plenty of reasons to be optimistic heading into this season. Paraphrasing Dizzy Dean, Georgia may not be the best team in the country, but it’s amongst ‘em. And when you’re one of the chosen few that can make it happen, it’s not hard to envision Kirby Smart finally hoisting the glass football in Indianapolis on Jan. 10.

The season opener against Clemson is a big advantage. I’ve long been a proponent of opening against a strong opponent. It means the players have longer attention spans between seasons. The coaches’ words carry more weight. That little bit of extra focus applied every day adds up. Having prepared for, and played, an elite Clemson team in the opener will only serve to make Georgia a better team down the road.

The game itself isn’t a make-or-break affair. Not to minimize the huge psychological factor involved with the Clemson game, but Georgia already knows it can compete at that level. Georgia can’t be serious about winning it all until it beats Alabama.

Beating Clemson would be nice, but Smart won’t let the Dawgs rest on their laurels; that’s just one hurdle. Likewise, a loss to Clemson merely shows Georgia what it needs to tighten up before its next big encounter.

Georgia heads into this season with an experienced quarterback. I’m always hesitant to single out one player in a team sport, but JT Daniels offers Georgia the chance to field an elite offense. And that’s no misprint.

Georgia had the best overall defense in the SEC last year but lost twice and failed to play for the conference championship for the first time in four years. In those two losses, Georgia couldn’t match scores with excellent offenses. In today’s game, offense is king.

I became convinced watching the 2019 SEC Championship Game unfold in front of me. From the end zone, you could see LSU quarterback Joe Burrow picking his choice of open receivers on any given play. Forget ball control and keeping the defense off the field. Get in the end zone ASAP!

I mean, Nick Saban’s offense rang up almost half a hundred a game last year against SEC defenses. Lane Kiffin’s Ole Miss offense hung 48 on Saban’s defense.

Daniels has the physical attributes, seems to be popular in the locker room, and has a large cast of receivers and running backs surrounding him. Given a full year in Todd Monken’s offense means Daniels might be holding the keys to an offense unlike any ever seen in Athens. According to research from The Athletic, Georgia’s offense returns 96% of its passing yards, 98% of its rushing yards, and 95% of its receiving yards.

And if its what’s up front that counts, Georgia’s in good shape. College football guru Phil Steele ranks Georgia’s offensive line as the seventh-best unit in the country, one spot behind Alabama and seven slots ahead of Clemson.

On the other side of the ball, Steele has Georgia’s defensive line ranked second in the country — right behind Clemson. He has Georgia’s linebacking corps ranked fourth, behind Alabama, Iowa State, and Clemson.

That’s more intrigue for the opener, and reassurance for what will follow.

Special teams, once a problem, are now an asset. Jake Camarda led the SEC in punting a year ago, and Kearis Jackson led in punt returns. Place kicker Jack Podlesny amazed everyone.

Throw in recruiting classes ranked first, second, first, and fourth in the nation, and there’s a wealth of talent on the Georgia sideline. Certain teams remain ensconced in the top five for a reason and recruiting at the top level is it.

Smart has established Georgia as an elite program. Sooner or later, the Dogs are going to win the big one. Sooner may be past. Later may be now.