The start of the college football season is now less than 50 days away, and in continuing our countdown to it, Chris Lee gives us a look at a pair of Southeastern Conference teams, Georgia and Kentucky.
Can Bulldogs regain Eastern supremacy?
It would not be fair to say that Georgia coach Mark Richt is on the hot seat, nor would it be fair if he were, given that he’s 136-48 after 14 seasons in Athens, with an excellent 80-37 Southeastern Conference mark.
It might, however, be fair to say that UGA has left some meat on the bone in recent seasons. The Eastern Division has even decidedly down in recent seasons, and in spite of that, Georgia has failed to represent it in the SEC Championship Game the last three seasons.
For a program that has probably had more talent than any other Eastern Division team during that stretch, more has been expected. It’ll be the same story in 2015, as the Bulldogs are the clear favorites in the East again.
I’m not sure that any school in college football history has produced more great running backs than Georgia, and the Bulldogs have another superstar in sophomore Nick Chubb to lead the way. As of July 1, Bovada gave Chubb 9-to-1 odds to take home the Heisman Trophy; only TCU’s Trevone Boykin (6-to-1) and Ohio State’s Ezekiel Elliott (7-to-1) are given a better chance. Chubb, splitting time with Todd Gurley for half the year, still managed 1,760 all-purpose yards and gained 7.1 yards per rushing attempt. Running behind the SEC’s best offensive line won’t hurt.
The biggest concern is whether Georgia can find a quarterback. Richt hasn’t settled on a starter, but sophomore Brice Ramsey, the backup last year (24-of-39, 333 yards, three touchdowns, two interceptions), led Faton Bauta at the end of spring, but UGA got an unexpected boost with the transfer of former Virginia starter Greyson Lambert (59 percent completions, 1,632 yards, 10 TDs, 11 interceptions) this summer. It would be a surprise if the talented Ramsey didn’t win the job, especially with Lambert ending the spring as UVA’s backup before he left.
The Bulldogs lost their two leading receivers, but if talented receivers Malcolm Mitchell and Justin Scott-Wesley can stay healthy (that’s been an issue) and sophomore tight end Jeb Blazevich continues to develop, UGA will be okay here.
Georgia’s defense improved markedly last year after coordinator Jeremy Pruitt left the same position at Florida State. The Bulldogs’ 3-4 defense will be anchored by a pair of potential NFL first-round linebackers in Jordan Jenkins and Leonard Floyd, though Jenkins may see some time at defensive end. If tackle Trenton Thompson is as good as advertised—he was the country’s No. 1 recruit according to some—the front seven could be outstanding. UGA has an excellent pair of safeties in Quincy Mauger and Dominick Sanders and while the biggest question is at corner, the Bulldogs do return starters Aaron Davis and Devin Bowman.
Las Vegas has set the over-under on Georgia’s regular-season wins at nine, even though the Western portion of the schedule includes Alabama (home), Auburn (road) and the regular-season slate wraps up with a trip to Georgia Tech. Still, if questions at quarterback are answered, the Bulldogs are plenty capable of beating that number.
Wildcats aim to take the next step
Kentucky was the league’s worst program when coach Mark Stoops took over after the 2012 season, and nothing changed after his first year. In 2014, UK went from two wins to five, which included an upset of South Carolina. Had the Wildcats just been able to knock off Florida in overtime, UK would have started 6-0 and been one of the biggest stories in college football at midseason. It went markedly downhill from there, with UK failing to get bowl eligible and losing its next six games by an average of 22 points.
The bad news: UK lost the best part of its team with linebacker Bud Dupree and defensive end Za’Darius Smith departed to the NFL. Offensive coordinator Neal Brown, now the head coach at Troy, is also gone. And, a recruiting class once ranked in the top 20 fell apart at the seams during the winter, though UK finished a respectable 35th according to Rivals.
The good news: that last recruiting class is still markedly better than where UK usually finishes. Throw in the fact that UK ranked 17th by Rivals the year before and 29th in 2013, and it seems that the ‘Cats, who haven’t had a winning season since 2009, are poised to perform at a better level soon.
If that’s going to be this fall, it will probably start at quarterback, where the talented Patrick Towles and Drew Barker duked it out in the spring. Towles threw for 2,718 yards, 14 touchdowns and nine picks a year ago, and should be the guy. The ‘Cats have a rather unremarkable receiving corps—Ryan Timmons, with 45 catches for 536 yards, is the leading returning pass-catcher—but UK believes it has some youngsters in Garrett Johnson and Dorian Baker who are ready to emerge.
Kentucky also believes it’s getting better in the running game. Stanley “Boom” Williams showed flashes as a freshman, gaining 6.6 yards per carry in limited duty. The line returns four starters and more depth than in recent years.
Losing those two stars to the NFL hurts, but the ‘Cats hope to benefit now that they’re further along in transition to a 3-4 defense. Melvin Lewis, a 342-pound nose tackle, should have a good year, and a pair of former four-star recruits in linebackers Denzil Ware and Jason Hatcher will be counted on to take a step up. The defensive backfield is experienced, but the ‘Cats lack difference-makers there.
Vegas has set the over-under on Wildcat wins at six; there are three games on the schedule that UK should win easily, but the ‘Cats will have to develop some explosiveness on offense and markedly improve a defense that gave up 31.3 points per game to get there.