The assumption is that the Georgia Bulldogs will fill their thin wide receiver corps through good recruiting, which is a reasonable view. Coach Kirby Smart’s program has recruited at Alabama’s level for three years running. Among those classes, the Bulldogs signed seven pass catchers who ranked within the top 25 nationally at their positions.
Those players may help but that’s speculative. Making guesses about important skill position groups is not ideal for a team aiming for a national title. No team that has made the College Football Playoff went into that season with fewer proven pass catchers than Georgia will have in 2019.
After Jeremiah Holloman's dismissal, the Bulldogs will be without their top five players in receiving yards from 2018. Connor O'Gara, writing for Saturday Down South, noted that all 20 teams that have participated in the CFP returned at least one top-five receiver in yards from the year before. Sixteen of those teams had at least two top pass catchers returning, including Georgia in 2017.
Of course, that doesn’t mean the Bulldogs won’t make it to the playoffs. There are good reasons why ESPN’s Football Power Index (FPI) gives Georgia the fourth-best odds to make the CFP behind Alabama, Clemson and Michigan. There’s proven talent everywhere except wide receiver.
Georgia has a great quarterback (Jake Fromm), a star running back (D’Andre Swift) and probably the best offensive line in the SEC. The defense has benefited from the infusion of talent. The Bulldogs are likely to be very good even if a standout receiver or two doesn’t emerge.
But Alabama also has a great quarterback and good line, plus the best group of wide receivers in the SEC. Clemson has stars at quarterback, running back and wide receiver. Georgia also will face the fifth-toughest schedule in the nation, according to FPI, while Alabama’s ranks 20th and Clemson is set to run through a weakened ACC.
I like Fromm a lot. He's smart, tough and an accurate passer. Fromm has a knack for getting his best guys the ball in good positions so they can go to work. The Bulldogs will be able to run the ball with Swift, who also is good catching it, and Fromm won't make many mistakes. But, to be great, Georgia needs one or two receivers to stretch the field and make big plays.
That’s how Clemson toppled Alabama in the last CFP championship game. QB Trevor Lawrence was magnificent but his receivers, especially freshman Justyn Ross, caught important passes from all angles. You may also recall that Alabama was sluggish against Georgia in the last SEC Championship game before freshman receiver Jaylen Waddle broke free for a game-changing score.
Maybe the Bulldogs can find a high-impact freshman receiver from a recruiting class that includes four elite prospects. Demetris Robertson was good as a freshman at Cal in 2016 but didn’t catch a pass for Georgia in 2018 (at least he looked good during spring practice). Grad transfer Lawrence Cager caught six TD passes for Miami last season, which is three times as many as Tyler Simmons, Georgia’s top incumbent receiver.
Georgia’s receiver group was thin before Holloman’s dismissal. Now it’s a mystery. The top three wide receivers and best tight end from 2018 soon will be in NFL camps. Mecole Hardman, Riley Ridley, Terry Godwin and Isaac Nauta accounted for 65 percent of Georgia’s touchdown catches in 2018, 60 percent of its receiving yards and 54 percent of its receptions.
Holloman had 24 receptions for 418 yards and five TD catches last season. He led Georgia with 17.4 yards per catch. Only Ridley had a higher percentage of his receptions go for scores. The Bulldogs needed Holloman.
There is precedent for Georgia staying good after losing significant talent. Sony Michel and Nick Chubb starred in 2017 before becoming NFL starters in 2018. Seven defensive starters departed after 2017, including SEC defensive player of the year Roquan Smith. That’s a lot of top NFL prospects for the defending SEC champions to lose.
The Bulldogs still made it back to the SEC Championship game. Swift became their next standout running back. Defensive end Jonathan Ledbetter and cornerback Deandre Baker anchored the defense. Georgia lost another close game to Alabama, but the players weren’t responsible for calling that fateful fake punt.
This transition will be different for Georgia. Swift already had shown his stuff in 2017. The defensive front still had a lot of experience without Smith and Baker was good the year before. Georgia had some clear answers for its questions going into 2018
The 2019 Bulldogs have no obvious candidate to become the outstanding pass catcher they need for another CFP bid. Again, that doesn’t necessarily mean Georgia won’t do it. It does mean the Bulldogs go into the season with a big question mark at one of the most important position groups. That’s no small thing.