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Georgia’s 4 biggest questions before season opener

Georgia coach Kirby Smart has won an SEC title and delivered the program’s first national championship game appearance in 35 years.

The big question: What do the Bulldogs do for an encore?

There are still more questions than answers with the season starting at 3:30 p.m. Saturday against FCS Austin Peay at Sanford Stadium.

The No. 3-ranked Bulldogs are loaded with talent. In all, 21 players on the roster having received a 5-star ranking from at least one of the recruiting services before signing on with the Bulldogs.

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Smart has pointed out throughout fall camp that high school rankings don’t matter once a player is at Georgia.

“I know y’all got the 5-star syndrome,” Smart said after the team’s first fall scrimmage, “but there’s a lot of guys out there that weren’t 5-stars that are competing every day.”

Indeed, and it’s further worth noting that none of the seven returning offensive starters from last season’s SEC Championship offense were preseason first-team selections at SEC Media Days in July.

Georgia, it seems, has plenty left to prove to the collegiate football world despite last season’s historic triumphs against Notre Dame, Oklahoma and in the league title game.

Here are the 4 of the biggest questions still facing the Bulldogs:

Quarterback rotation 

It’s hard to imagine any team taking snaps away from the quarterback that led it to a league title and national title game appearance, but then, it’s hard to imagine an incoming freshman as accomplished as Justin Fields.

Sophomore Jake Fromm is the unquestioned leader of the Georgia offense, but the staff has in good faith opened every position up for competition and Fields has impressed with his arm talent and athleticism.

The Bulldogs have only two scholarship quarterbacks after Jacob Eason transferred to Washington in February, and the plan is to provide Fields work where appropriate. 

It’s paramount Fromm handle the situation in stride and continue to lead in the locker room, regardless of how the snap count works out.

Quarterback Jake Fromm excelled as a freshman in the 2017 season, passing for 2,615 yards and completing 62.2 percent of his passes. Running back D’Andre Swift ranked third in rushing yards in 2017 (618) and leads all returning players in that category. Wide receiver Terry Godwin caught 38 passes in 2017, second on the team behind senior Javon Wims. Wide receiver Mecole Hardman caught 25 passes in 2017, ranking third on the team. Wide receiver Riley Ridley caught 14 passes in 2017. He caught six of the 1

Offensive identity 

Georgia returns four of five starters on a mammoth offensive line that averages more than 320 pounds per man, plus or minus a biscuit here and there. 

But how the Bulldogs’ choose to operate behind that big, red wall has yet to be determined. 

The competition in the backfield is fierce, with leading returning rusher D’Andre Swift challenge by returning backs Brian Herrien and Elijah Holyfield, along with incoming 5-star back James Cook. 

Isaac Nauta and Charlie Woerner provide the Bulldogs with two strong tight end options, and incoming transfer Robertson joins a hungry corps of receivers led by Terry Godwin, Riley Ridley and Mecole Hardman. 

Point is, they can’t all be on the field at the same time, and Georgia must devise a plan to maximize the talent while keeping the locker room in equilibrium. 

Georgia linebacker D'Andre Walker recorded 40 tackles in 2017, tied for seventh on the team, but ranked second in tackles for loss (13.5) and in sacks (5.5). Defensive back J.R. Reed recorded 79 tackles in 2017, second on the team behind Roquan Smith, who left for the NFL. Reed also recorded five tackles for loss, 1.5 sacks and two interceptions. Cornerback Deandre Baker ranks second among 2018 returning players in tackles and interceptions in 2017. Linebacker Monty Rice recorded 22 tackles as a freshman

Replacing Roquan Smith 

How many times have you heard this offseason how important it is to replace Roquan Smith? 

The 2017 SEC Defensive Player of the Year and Butkus Award winner is only one man, but Smith was so much more when it came to leadership and motivating teammates around him. 

Smart has come right out and said Georgia probably doesn’t have a first-round NFL Draft pick that can fill Smith’s shoes on or off the field. 

But the Bulldogs do have a talented senior in Natrez Patrick who, when he’s not in the doghouse, has proven capable of leadership and stellar play. 

“His leadership has always been good quality because he’s not afraid to speak up, he’s not afraid to challenge guys that aren’t playing the right way,” Smart said after the first fall scrimmage, “but his ability to sustain and do it for 40 plays has been the biggest part he has to improve on.” 

Patrick could evolve into one of the best comeback stories in the SEC if he can overcome the off-field issues that led to two suspensions totaling six games last season and offseason time at an inpatient facility. 

Defensive front 

It’s a numbers game, where Georgia lost five of seven starters from the front seven that competed in last season’s College Football Playoffs. 

Smart said he’s counting on Julian Rochester to step up and advance from “dependable” to “difference maker” at nose guard where departed unsung senior John Atkins has left a sizable hole to fill. 

“For us to be a great defense, the likes of [defensive linemen] Julian, Tyler Clark, DaQuan Hawkins-Muckle and Michael Barnett, they have to play better,” Smart said. “They got to play more physical, we got to knock people back to be a dominant defensive team.” 

Smart recently referred to a “committee” approach in his defensive front.

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