Guerry Clegg

Georgia may be top sleeper for the College Football Playoffs

Thought I’m generally not one for predictions, here’s one I will make with absolute certainly. Someone will read what I’m about to write and completely miss the point or distort the words. It’s a routine job hazard, especially when the topic is college football.

So here goes.

Georgia could be the top sleeper in the country to reach the College Football Playoffs. Sure, the Bulldogs could just as easily go 8-5 with a loss in the Music City Bowl. Either scenario would be only mildly surprising. In truth, they’ll probably finish somewhere between those two extremes.

But …

If Auburn was good enough to play for the national championship in 2013, is it really that much of a stretch to think this Georgia team could do the same?

Let’s start with this premise. It’s not uncommon for some team that was overlooked in the preseason to find itself in the national championship mix. Two of last season’s semifinalists began the season outside the Top 10 – Clemson at No. 12 and Oklahoma at No. 19.

Not only was Auburn unranked in the 2013 preseason poll, Florida State was No. 11. The year before that, Notre Dame climbed from unranked to the BCS Championship Game. In 2010, neither Auburn (No. 22) nor Oregon (No. 11) were favorites.

Here’s why Georgia may be the top sleeper. Let’s start with defining the term sleeper. VegasInsider.com set Georgia’s odds of winning the national championship at 60-1, same as Louisville, Nebraska and UCLA.

It would surprise nobody if Alabama, Clemson, Florida State, Ohio State and LSU are the popular picks right now. Then maybe Oklahoma. Beyond that, it’s anybody’s guess. Tennessee? Maybe, but I’m not sold. But the Volunteers wouldn’t qualify as a sleeper any way. Neither would Michigan.

Southern Cal? Let’s see the Trojans get by Alabama first.

So then you have a grab bag of pretty decent teams – Notre Dame, Washington, Iowa, Stanford, Ole Miss, Florida, Michigan State, TCU, Baylor, Oregon.

Here are three reasons why the Bulldogs might be the best of that bunch.

▪ Defense — It wins championships, right? No, this isn’t a dominant bunch in the mold of Alabama and LSU’s best teams of late. But the front seven should be pretty solid – respectable against the run, possibly dominant in rushing the passer. The secondary is seasoned with some talented young players behind the veterans. Across the board, this is probably the most talent the Dogs have had on defense in the last 10 years.

▪ Schedule — It’s just challenging enough without being overbearing. There’s a bunch of probably bowl teams but no true power houses. If the Dogs get by North Carolina in the opener, they have two softer games — Nichols State and at Missouri — before traveling to Ole Miss. Then Tennessee comes to Athens.

And the Bulldogs can afford to lose one, as long as it’s the right one. If they reach the SEC Championship Game with one loss, then they’re essentially playing to make the College Football Playoff. Of course, getting by Alabama or LSU or whoever wins the West is another matter. But winning builds confidence and momentum so at that point anything can happen.

▪ Running backs — If Nick Chubb fully regains confidence in his knee and Sony Michel recovers from his broken arm, there’s no better one-two punch anywhere in college football. LSU’s Leonard Fournette and Derrius Guice might be as good, but they’re not better.

Sure, Alabama shut all of them down last season except for Chubb’s one long run. But that Crimson Tide defensive front was a special unit. Plus, neither Georgia nor LSU had the quarterback to keep defenses honest against the run.

Add to that, the Dogs could be deeper in the receiving corps than they were last year. They need someone, possibly Riley Ridley, to emerge and take some pressure off Terry Godwin.

All that said, the Bulldogs carry three very big unknowns into the season.

▪ Quarterback — Greyson Lambert, Bryce Ramsey or Jacob Eason. Odds are, none of the three candidates will be great. But any of the three could be good enough to win games. If Eason can catch on quickly, he could be very good by the end of the season.

▪ Kicker — Marshall Morgan didn’t always kick the prettiest ball. But he was a four-year starter so at least the Dogs knew what they had. Rodrigo Blankenship, William Ham and invited walk-on Mitchell Wasson have no game experience. They could drill 50-yarders in practice every day and it would not matter. How will any of them react when there’s 90,000 people in the stands and national television cameras all around?

▪ Kirby Smart — Actually, the question is not so much Smart himself but how the team buys in to him. There will be a time — whether it’s preparing for a game or in a critical moment — when the players will look to the head coach for leadership. Until he coaches a team through that time, there’s no telling how the players will respond to him or vice versa.

So that’s it. There’s your non-prediction. If the Dogs wind up in the national championship picture, you read it here first. Sort of.

Guerry Clegg: sports@ledger-enquirer.com, @guerryclegg

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