Roquan Smith? He’s gone. Tua Tagovailoa? He’s not.
Photo: Curtis Compton/AJC
Photo: Curtis Compton/AJC

Pigskin Pickin’: UGA goes 12-0, Tech 8-4; Clemson wins it all

Our annual Memorial Day college football predictions begin with what might seem double-talk. On that convoluted note, away we go.

> Georgia won’t be quite as good as it was last year. Georgia will finish its regular season undefeated.

The 2017 Bulldogs were 11-1 against a schedule that took them to South Bend, Ind., and Auburn, Ala. The remainder of Georgia’s road was, to borrow from the late great Joe Dean, as soft as church music. There were no other realistic chances to lose, and the Bulldogs didn’t invent one. The 2018 slate holds no game as difficult as Notre Dame and Auburn away.

Instead of the Fighting Irish, Georgia gets Middle Tennessee State in Athens. Auburn will come to Sanford Stadium, and the Tigers could be in for a sobering season. (More about this in a bit.) It’s possible that the Bulldogs could lose at South Carolina and/or LSU, but here we note: Will Muschamp coaches South Carolina; Ed Orgeron coaches LSU. Florida is in Year 1 under Dan Mullen, whose Mississippi State lost to Georgia 31-3 in September.

The Bulldogs will again face Alabama at Mercedes-Benz Stadium, this time for the conference title. Both will arrive unbeaten. Bama will leave that way. The reason Georgia won’t prevail: No Roquan Smith, no Sony Michel, no Nick Chubb, no Isaiah Wynn. Those were foundational players. Given time, Kirby Smart will replace them. Replacing all four in one year is too much to ask.

> The Crimson Tide coaching staff has undergone an overhaul. Both coordinators are new. The only Bama assistant who’ll be doing the same job as last season is line coach Brent Key. Still, the memory of Tide freshmen overwhelming Georgia in the second half/overtime of the national championship game is so fresh that it’s hard to imagine those guys won’t do even greater work as sophomores.

Tua Tagovailoa figures to jump ahead of Jaylen Hurts, and the Hawaiian is the most gifted Bama quarterback since … Snake Stabler? Joe Willie Namath? Harry Gilmer? There’s also this: The only indispensable man in Tuscaloosa remains in place. Nick Saban has six national titles. He’ll play for a seventh in Santa Clara on Jan. 7.

> He’ll also lose. Alabama and Clemson will collide for the fourth consecutive January. It’s the Tigers’ turn to win.

> The College Football Playoff, in descending seed order: Alabama, Clemson, Georgia, Ohio State. Even with a soft schedule, a one-loss Georgia will make it. (We saw something similar with Bama last year, and the Tide didn’t play for the SEC title.) One-loss Ohio State – the loss at Michigan State – will edge one-loss Washington for the final spot. The Bulldogs will lose to Clemson in the Cotton Bowl.

> The aforementioned Hurts will indeed transfer – to Texas.

> Miami will again win the ACC Coastal and again lose to Clemson in Charlotte. The Hurricanes will handle LSU in their opener in Arlington, Texas. Say what you will about Mark Richt, but he’s a darn sight better than Coach O.

> Georgia Tech will go 8-4. Let’s assume Nate Woody’s defense is no flimsier than Ted Roof’s in key situations. Let’s assume Paul Johnson’s offense will be pretty much as it always is. The schedule, however, precludes assuming much beyond that. The Yellow Jackets would have to go 2-2 in road games at South Florida (10 wins last season), Louisville, Virginia Tech and Georgia, and split with Clemson and Miami at Bobby Dodd Stadium to get to 9-3. That’s probably too much to ask.

> Auburn’s season will turn on its result Sept. 1 in Mercedes-Benz Stadium. Should the Tigers lose to Washington -- I believe they will -- they’ll have gone 0-3 after beating two No. 1 teams in the span of 15 days last November, all three losses in the stadium with the theoretically retractable roof. The Tigers could still turn out to be the SEC’s third-best team. Alas, Nos. 1 and 2 will be their nearest neighbors.

> Tennessee in Year 1 under Jeremy Pruitt: 7-5. The midriff of the Volunteers’ schedule: At Georgia, at Auburn, Alabama in Knoxville, at South Carolina. Pruitt is a good coach who mightn’t be a great fit. He’s an unpolished guy in a fishbowl job. He also has Phillip Fulmer as his boss.

> Florida in Year 1 under Mullen: 9-3, but not a filling 9-3. Nine of the Gators’ 12 games will be played in Florida, and the road games – Tennessee, Mississippi State and LSU – aren’t unwinnable. I’m still not sure how good a coach Mullen is, though. He did well in Starkville, but apart from a few giddy months in 2014, his Bulldogs never threatened to break upward. (That season ended with an Orange Bowl loss to Georgia Tech.) He’ll have access to far better talent in Gainesville, but he’d can’t take long to get it going. Muschamp lasted four years. Jim McElwain was gone in three. The Reptiles are restless. 

> Texas A&M in Year 1 under Jimbo Fisher: 9-3, and a satisfying 9-3. The Aggies will be the the only team to face Clemson and Alabama in the regular season, and the guess is that they’ll upset the Tigers in College Station on Sept. 8. I’m not sure we’ll ever know all that went wrong in Tallahassee, but I’d still rank Jimbo among the nation’s 10 best coaches. If you’re asking who’ll be the biggest threat to Bama in the SEC West over the next few years, it’s A&M.

> Florida State in Year 1 under Willie Taggart: 10-2. The schedule’s not easy – opener against Virginia Tech, road games at Miami and Notre Dame, plus Clemson in Tallahassee – but Taggart is absolutely the right guy to follow Fisher, on whom FSU fans had soured. (The feeling was mutual.) This is one case where a severance was the right thing for both parties.

> UCLA in Year 1 under Chip Kelly: Don’t care. Yeah, he won big at Oregon. He also left the Ducks in the NCAA lurch and was handed a show-cause penalty. He has been fired by two NFL clubs. He’s not Saban or Urban Meyer, but we media people act as if he invented the game. Fun fact: When Georgia staffers toured L.A. ahead of their Rose Bowl excursion, they pulled up at the InterContinental and saw a coach’s likeness projected on the front of the towering hotel -- but not Smart’s. “Welcome, Chip Kelly,” the message read.

About the Author

Mark Bradley
Mark Bradley
Mark Bradley is a sports columnist and blogger for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. He has been with the AJC since 1984.

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