The Maneater

How does the SEC East favorite stack up? Talking Georgia with the Red and Black

The Georgia student paper’s sports editor Michael Hebert and assistant sports editor Thomas Boyd joined The Maneater at the 2018 SEC Media Days.

Missouri and Georgia players line up at the line of scrimmage during their game in 2016.

Some might say the beginnings of Missouri’s improbable 2017 roundabout from SEC bottom dweller to bowl-bound, feel-good story can be traced back to a promising first half effort in Athens, Georgia. The Tigers didn’t even come close to winning that game. Their streak was still two weeks away from its first steps. But three early touchdowns (four total) against a top-five team signalled a change.

For Georgia, it was just a minuscule roadblock.

The Bulldogs won the SEC Championship, reached the national title game and are a clear favorite to top the SEC East again in 2018.

And after Missouri’s turnaround, Barry Odom’s Tigers were voted by media this week to finish fourth in the same division.

The Maneater sat down to talk with Michael Hebert and Thomas Boyd, sports editor and assistant sports editor at the Red and Black, Georgia’s student newspaper, to break down how this year’s Georgia team factors into the SEC East.

Hebert said the Bulldogs' path to the SEC Championship might not be as clear as last year — or at least not as clear as people say it will be.

“It’s kind of hard not to be big on them,” Hebert said. “But people are underestimating how much those seniors actually meant to that team. It’s not going to be the same as last year.”

The key pivot game this time around, for both Georgia and the rest of the division, is week two. The Dawgs will travel to South Carolina for their first taste of SEC competition in a contest that could reverberate through the conference. The Gamecocks are returning most of their 2017 team and will feature a healthy Deebo Samuel at wideout to lead their offense. They were voted to finish second place in the division behind Georgia and earned eight first place votes. That order could switch with the result of the September clash.

“South Carolina’s a much more improved team than they were last year, so I could see [Georgia] losing that game,” Hebert said. “I also think that if that SC-Georgia game was in Athens, then that would be a different discussion. The fact that it’s week two and Georgia is still figuring out what kind of team they are ... that’s why I feel like that could be a lot more dangerous.”

The improvement on South Carolina’s end results in part from growth in recruiting out of Atlanta and the rest of Georgia. But even more inviting than the youth is the factor of experience from returners, as Carolina student paper sports editor Shelby Beckler said.

“They were certainly missing that component last year,” Beckler said, though that didn’t stop the Gamecocks from running Missouri out of Faurot Field in September.

Georgia’s week two game last season, a 20-19 down-to-the-wire win over Notre Dame, was a similar case to this year’s upcoming one. As Boyd and Hebert noted, a loss would have changed the course of the season.

Boyd pinpoints LSU (road) and Auburn (home) as the other two primary threats to Georgia’s division crown and chances at a return trip to the College Football Playoff. Hebert had one another team in mind.

“Even going to [Missouri].

“I think Georgia’s definitely capable of going back to the SEC Championship like everyone thinks. But I wouldn’t be surprised if they drop at least one, maybe two of those games.”

Relative to its other opponents, the Tigers torched Georgia’s secondary last year, with Lock passing for 253 yards and four touchdowns. One of the Bulldogs’ returning defensive backs J.R. Reed said on Tuesday that the game would be won or lost by the secondary, a sentiment Hebert agreed with.

“Drew Lock’s a good quarterback, and this secondary is probably one of the biggest question marks for Georgia, just because they had three seniors in the secondary last year that all graduated,” Hebert said, though he pointed to Reed and DeAndre Baker as high-caliber returners.

Long story short? Don’t rule out the possibility of Missouri pulling an upset of even greater scale than Georgia’s over the Tigers in the SEC men’s basketball tournament in March.

Georgia will be Missouri’s conference opener and the first of a three-game stretch that will also test the Tigers against Alabama and South Carolina. Winning one of the three would be a resounding boost into the rest of a season in which expectations are to improve on that 7-5 mark.

Widespread expectations to improve accompany Georgia too following its recent master-class in recruiting, and the only way up from last year is a national championship.

“I think everyone’s saying it’s going to be a Georgia-Alabama rematch in the SEC Championship,” Hebert said. “I don’t know. I don’t know. We’ll just have to see.”

Edited by Adam Cole|acole@themaneater.com

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