Pigskin Pickin’ again! Georgia Tech wins six games, UGA wins it all

Credit: Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@

Credit: Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@

Observant readers – AJC readers are nothing if not observant – will have noticed that something has gone missing. It was this correspondent’s custom to offer his guaranteed-to-be-wrong-in-part-if-not-in-full college football predictions around Memorial Day. Those went undone last year because, as of Memorial Day and even the Fourth of July, nobody knew if there would be college football in 2020.

This year, college football took a back seat to the NBA. The Hawks’ first playoff game was May 23. Their last was July 3. They became the Hot Story, even above the Braves. (Who, except for those nights when they score 20 runs, have been tepid.) To be fair, nothing prevented me from taking a day to dash off a little something about the toe-meets-leather sport, except that I wasn’t especially engaged by football when Trae and Co. were winning more postseason games than any Atlanta-era Hawks team ever.

Your attention, please. I am now engaged.

Here, for the first time since 2019, we offer our almost annual round of Pigskin Pickin’. For late tuners-in, I’m usually – though not quite always – wrong. For readers of longer standing, these bits of prognostication are proof that I do in fact hate your team. For example: If I don’t tab Georgia as the national-champ-to-be, I have again besmirched Bulldog Nation and all who dwell within; if I do pick Georgia to win it all, I have affixed the Bradley Jinx, which has felled even the mightiest local teams. Ergo, I can’t please anybody, to say nothing of everybody.

True confession, though: I don’t really care. On that cheery note, we begin anew.

⋅ Georgia will win the national championship. (Set you up for that, did I not?)

Over the past three seasons, the Bulldogs have settled in as college football’s top runner-up. They’ve missed the playoffs, but they’ve remained a top-10 team. In the final College Football Playoff ratings, they’ve been fifth, fifth and ninth, which means the 12-team CFP cannot come too soon for Kirby Smart. But here’s your factoid of the day: Of the four teams that made last season’s playoff, all will be working with a new No. 1 quarterback.

Barring injury and a Hall of Fame-worthy preseason by freshman Brock Vandagriff, Georgia will not. Much had to happen before JT Daniels became Georgia’s starter – Jamie Newman had to opt out; D’Wan Mathis had to fizzle; Stetson Bennett had to hurt his shoulder in Jacksonville – but here Daniels stands. He was among the first big names to sign a now-permissible marketing agreement, which means there shouldn’t be any Todd Gurley-like suspensions in his future. It’s unclear if receiver George Pickens, who tore his ACL in March, will play another collegiate game, but Georgia – stop me if you’ve heard this already – never lacks for talent.

The Bulldogs open against Clemson in Charlotte on Sept. 4. If they win that night, and they should, they stand an excellent chance of arriving at the SEC Championship game unbeaten. And who might they face at Mercedes-Benz Stadium?

⋅ The temptation is palpable to pick Texas A&M to win the SEC West. The Aggies play Alabama, which administered their only 2020 loss, in College Station on Oct. 9. But A&M also is in new-QB mode, Kellen Mond having departed after what seemed a 17-year collegiate career. Contrary to popular belief, Bama doesn’t always win the West. It didn’t in 2017. It didn’t in 2019. It will this year.

That said, it would be impossible for the Crimson Tide not to recede after last season, which might have featured the best Bama team under Nick Saban, maybe the best under anybody. Losses: DeVonta Smith, Mac Jones, Jaylen Waddle, Najee Harris, Alex Leatherwood and Patrick Surtain. All were among the NFL draft’s first 24 picks. Here’s guessing Georgia – finally! – beats Alabama for the SEC title. Here’s guessing both make the CFP’s field of four.

⋅ Let the record show that M. Bradley, dunce of long standing, picked Florida to win the SEC East last season. (On the head-to-head tiebreaker with Georgia, no less.) The Gators also managed to lose four games. Coach Dan Mullen got hit with NCAA sanctions for recruiting misbehavior. Todd Grantham kept his job despite presiding over a defense that finished 74th nationally in points yielded. Last year Georgia played Alabama in the regular season. This year Florida plays Alabama on Sept. 18. The game’s in Gainesville. Won’t matter. The Gators will finish second in the East, and not a close second.

⋅ A word or two about Auburn, because when is Auburn not worth a word or two? I like the hire of Bryan Harsin as Gus Malzahn’s successor. Harsin’s record at Boise State: 69-19. I’ve also been informed by folks who know a lot about football that Harsin cannot hope to out-recruit Saban and Smart, which is a big deal when you’re coaching Auburn. As usual, the Tigers face a difficult schedule, with road games at Penn State, LSU and Texas A&M. Let’s say Harsin goes 8-4. At Auburn, that might buy him another couple of months. It also might not.

⋅ Switching to the ACC, I’m intrigued by North Carolina, which should win the Coastal Division. Could the Tar Heels under Mack Brown in his second Chapel Hill stint dislodge Clemson, which has won every ACC title since 2014? Short answer: nah.

⋅ Geoff Collins’ #404Takeover enters its third season. The first ended with a 45-point home loss to Georgia. The second ended with a 14-point home loss to Pittsburgh. Georgia Tech is 6-16 under Collins, who has recruited at a higher level than his predecessor, though it would be hard to recruit with less oomph than Paul Johnson. That said, Johnson took the talent inherited from Chan Gailey and went 19-7 over his first two seasons.

The belief is that the Yellow Jackets are indeed improving. (Woe be unto them if they’re not.) There will, however, still be times when Tech is outclassed. It plays Clemson and North Carolina in September, Notre Dame and Georgia in November. Let’s pencil in Tech at 6-6, though that’s probably a best-case scenario.

⋅ Playoff teams: 1. Georgia; 2. Oklahoma; 3. Alabama; 4. Ohio State. The final, set for Indianapolis, will pair the teams that met in the epic Rose Bowl of Jan. 1, 2018. The Bulldogs beat the Sooners and Heisman Trophy winner Baker Mayfield in two overtimes then. They will beat the Sooners and Heisman winner Spencer Rattler in regulation.