By the looks of it at the present time, Georgia doesn’t have the most daunting schedule in 2017.
The SEC East is expected to be the inferior division to the West once again, with Georgia landing a rotating cross-divisional game against Mississippi State, which finished 6-7 a season ago.
While a trip to Notre Dame will be challenging, Georgia draws Samford and Appalachian State as other non-conference opponents. The Mountaineers, however, have proven not to be overlooked with a win over Michigan in 2007 and a near-upset over Tennessee in 2016.
While it doesn’t look like the strongest schedule in the moment, that could change once the season kicks off. What makes college football great is how unpredictable each season can be.
But with less than three months away from Georgia’s first kickoff, here is how each Georgia opponent ranks in strength.
12. Samford Bulldogs (Sept. 16 at Sanford Stadium in Athens)
Kirby Smart actually coached with Samford head coach Chris Hatcher back in the day at Valdosta State. And Hatcher will look to give his former pupil everything he and his team can handle. Samford took Mississippi State to the wire last season, signaling this won’t be a team Georgia can overlook, despite the FCS designation.
11. Appalachian State Mountaineers (Sept. 2 at Sanford Stadium in Athens)
There is actually a strong argument to be made that Appalachian State could be a spot or two higher on this list. The Mountaineers return quarterback Taylor Lamb – the son of Mercer head coach Bobby Lamb – who proved tough for Sun Belt teams to deal with last year. Oh, and who could forget the overtime thriller Appalachian State played against Tennessee to open 2016. Georgia must keep its full attention on Appalachian State heading into the season.
10. Missouri Tigers (Oct. 14 at Sanford Stadium in Athens)
Missouri quarterback Drew Lock had one of the best games of his career last season against Georgia, going for 376 yards and three touchdowns. The Tigers also return a good number of offensive contributors, including receiver J’Mon Moore. The problem Missouri has is the fact its defense, which was already susceptible, lost defensive lineman Charles Harris, cornerback John Gibson and cornerback Aarion Penton.
9. Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets (Nov. 25 at Bobby Dodd Stadium in Atlanta)
Georgia Tech will be one of those teams everyone – including this reporter – overlooks to start the year. And the Yellow Jackets generally play their best when everyone counts them out. But losing quarterback Justin Thomas, among other quality offensive contributors, certainly hurts. The defense also took a hit with the departures of Meiko Dotson and Dorian Walker, along with the announced transfers of Emanuel Bridges and Trent Sellers. Running back Dedrick Mills could be asked to do a lot more in 2017 after a big TaxSlayer Bowl that saw him go off for 169 yards and a touchdown.
8. Vanderbilt Commodores (Oct. 7 at Vanderbilt Stadium in Nashville, Tennessee)
The Commodores bested Georgia in Athens last season by a point, thanks to an outstanding day from linebacker Zach Cunningham. This year, Cunningham won’t be suiting up in a Vanderbilt uniform as he decided to bypass his senior season for the NFL draft. That loss alone will be extremely tough for the Commodores to make up. Vanderbilt will return experienced linebacker Oren Burks to help out in his absence. On offense, quarterback Kyle Shurmur and running back Ralph Webb will look to build upon strong 2016 finishes.
7. Mississippi State Bulldogs (Sept. 23 at Sanford Stadium in Athens)
Led by quarterback Nick Fitzgerald, who finished 2016 with 3,816 total yards (2,423 passing, 1,375 rushing, 9 receiving), Mississippi State’s offense will look to build on its strong finish. But Mississippi State will hope its defense can be significantly better after allowing 31 points per game. To fix this, Mississippi State brought in former Louisville defensive coordinator Todd Grantham to replace Peter Sirmon, who ended up taking Grantham’s old job at Louisville. Of course, Grantham is remembered in this state as Georgia’s defensive coordinator from 2010-13. Mississippi State will also have a couple of former Georgia defenders on its roster by way of junior college transfer in safety Johnathan Abram and defensive end Chauncey Rivers.
6. Kentucky Wildcats (Nov. 18 at Sanford Stadium in Athens)
The Wildcats were tough to defeat a season ago, with Rodrigo Blankenship hitting a game-winning field goal at the buzzer. With running back Benny Snell Jr. back for his sophomore season, Kentucky’s ground game should be incredibly tough to defend once again. Snell ran for 114 yards and two touchdowns against the Bulldogs and did much of his damage when Georgia knew exactly what Kentucky wanted to do. Kentucky’s defense could still be a work in progress, although safety Mike Edwards will once again be one of the SEC’s better defensive backs.
5. South Carolina Gamecocks (Nov. 4 at Sanford Stadium in Athens)
The Gamecocks did better than most people thought by capturing six wins in 2016. South Carolina’s progress could be further accelerated thanks to what should be a formidable defense in 2017. Nine senior starters return, with linebacker Skai Moore back in the fold. Moore missed all of 2016 due to neck fusion surgery. The offense will also return nine starters, including quarterback Jake Bentley, who figures to show progression after appearing in the Gamecocks’ final seven games. After allowing 41 sacks last season, South Carolina’s offensive line should be more experienced with four returning starters up front.
4. Tennessee Volunteers (Sept. 30 at Neyland Stadium in Knoxville, Tennessee)
For Tennessee, it will be a tall order to replace quarterback Joshua Dobbs, running back Alvin Kamara and receiver Josh Malone on offense. On the other side of the ball, the Volunteers have to deal with the departures of defensive linemen Derek Barnett, Corey Vereen and LaTroy Lewis, along with linebacker Jalen Reeves-Maybin and cornerback Cam Sutton. Still, there is enough young talent to warrant Tennessee consideration as a dark horse contender for the SEC East. Quinten Dormady and Jarrett Guarantano are the top contenders at quarterback.
3. Florida Gators (Oct. 28 at EverBank Field in Jacksonville, Florida)
By default, the Gators land at No. 3 on this list, even with plenty of deficiencies to worry about. First, Florida has to replace eight starters on defense, making it one of the more inexperienced units in the SEC. That stated, Cece Jefferson and Jabari Zuniga are talented defensive linemen who figure to see extended roles in 2017. On offense, Florida will have an important choice at quarterback to make between graduate transfer Malik Zaire and redshirt freshman Feleipe Franks. While questions exist on both sides of the ball, the Gators have won the past two SEC East crowns despite entering the season without expectations to do so.
2. Notre Dame Fighting Irish (Sept. 9 at Notre Dame Stadium in South Bend, Indiana)
Last season, Notre Dame may have fielded one of the best 4-8 teams in recent memory. While the Fighting Irish were on the losing side more often than not, seven of their eight losses came by eight points or less and five losses were to bowl teams. While Notre Dame lost Zaire to Florida and DeShone Kizer to the NFL, talented quarterback Brandon Wimbush will look to keep the offense rolling. A total of 15 starters return, including receiver Equanimeous St. Brown and tight end Aliz'e Jones. But Notre Dame’s defense needs fixing after surrendering 27.8 points per game a season ago.
1. Auburn Tigers (Nov. 11 at Jordan-Hare Stadium in Auburn, Alabama)
This pick is a no-brainer compared to the rest of the teams on Georgia’s schedule. Auburn is the only team the Bulldogs are slated to play that could land in the preseason top 10. The Tigers will bring back both running backs in Kamryn Pettway (1,224 yards, 7 touchdowns) and Kerryon Johnson (895 yards, 11 touchdowns). Former Baylor quarterback Jarrett Stidham, who transferred in from McLennan Community College in Waco, Texas, provides Auburn an immediate upgrade at quarterback. But Auburn will have to figure out how to adequately replace defensive linemen Carl Lawson and Montravius Adams.