Georgia ends spring football cycle in best shape of playoff contenders

Coach Kirby Smart confers with Carson Beck between plays during the G-Day game Saturday, April 13, 2024.  Curtis Compton for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Credit: Curtis Compton

Credit: Curtis Compton

Coach Kirby Smart confers with Carson Beck between plays during the G-Day game Saturday, April 13, 2024. Curtis Compton for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

It’s not yet summer, as determined by the solstice. It is summer for college football, as determined by the calendar.

It’s finally safe to assume that rosters are set now that nearly every coveted player in the college football transfer portal has picked a new team. Coaching staffs have been hired. Spring practices are over. It’s time to take stock of the top of college football.

If the betting markets are right, then Georgia came out of the spring cycle stronger than the other national championship contenders. The Bulldogs were 4-1 favorites soon after the last College Football Playoff Championship game ended. Now Georgia is getting 3-1 odds to win the 12-team CFP, followed by Ohio State (4.5-to 1), Texas (8-1) and Oregon (10-1).

The Bulldogs are worthy favorites. They are 34-2 over the past three seasons. The team that knocked them out of last year’s playoff, Alabama, is entering a strange new world without Nick Saban. Georgia’s Kirby Smart is now the best coach in college football. He has the top NFL quarterback prospect, Carson Beck, and the deepest talent base.

There are questions about the Bulldogs. Top offensive playmakers Brock Bowers and Ladd McConkey are in the NFL now. Three players from last season’s secondary also were drafted. Finding big-play pass catchers and replacements on defense are on Smart’s to-do list.

But all the other CFP contenders have bigger concerns. That includes the team most likely to beat the Bulldogs, Ohio State.

I’ve wondered if he Buckeyes will score enough points to win the national championship without superstar wide receiver Marvin Harrison Jr. My suspicions were confirmed when ESPN analyst Bill Connelly released his post-spring statistical projections. That forecast ranked Ohio State’s offense 20th in FBS, far below the other contenders.

OSU is going to be great on defense after adding Caleb Downs, the ex-Alabama safety, to an already-good defensive roster. I don’t see the top transfer on offense, quarterback Will Howard, having the same impact. He was good at Kansas State, but is a notch below CFP-championship caliber. And new play-caller Chip Kelly’s reputation as an offensive guru took a hit during his tenure as UCLA head coach.

The other reason to doubt the Buckeyes is coach Ryan Day’s history of coming up short. Day’s Buckeyes have made the CFP Championship game once in five full seasons, and that ended with a lopsided loss against Alabama. That’s not good enough for a coach was expected to win like predecessor Urban Meyer. There’s also the three consecutive losses to arch-rival Michigan. Day is under tremendous pressure to end both streaks this year, which is not a good spot for him.

Texas is on shakier ground than OSU. Credit coach Steve Sarkisian for resurrecting the program. It took him only three years to lead the Longhorns to their first-ever CFP bid. But now the Longhorns are experiencing the NFL talent drain that all contenders deal with.

Texas had 11 players selected in this year’s NFL draft, including five within the first two rounds. The Longhorns haven’t churned out that many NFL players since coach Mack Brown was doing less with more. From 2014-21, Texas never had more than five players picked in the draft. Incredibly, there was just one first-round draft pick from Texas during those eight years.

Smart and Saban are the only two coaches in recent years who’ve proved they could keep fielding championship-caliber teams even as waves of players left for the NFL. I think it will take more time for Sarkisian to reach that point, if he ever does. The Longhorns will be good because of their offensive line talent and quarterback Quinn Ewers, but they are a notch below Georgia and Ohio State.

The same goes for Oregon. Dan Lanning, Smart’s former assistant, has done a fine job recruiting, but now Oregon is in the Big Ten instead of the Pac-12. Ohio State goes to Eugene in October, and the Ducks are at Michigan and Wisconsin in November. Give them a year to get acclimated to life in a more physical league.

Alabama is the best of the rest of the teams aiming for a CFP championship. Kalen DeBoer did well with picking up the pieces in the aftermath of Saban’s surprise retirement. He’ll need more time to give Bama a better chance of doing than the other second-tier contenders. That includes defending champion Michigan, which lost its coach (Jim Harbaugh to the NFL’s Chargers) and quarterback (J.J. McCarthy to the NFL draft).

The expansion of the CFP to 12 teams means that, in theory, more teams than ever will have a chance to win the national championship. The betting odds reflect the reality that maybe six teams have a realistic shot. The top four teams will get a bye. Seeds 8-12 might spring an upset, but they aren’t going to win four consecutive games for a title.

Bulldogs backers can pretty much set their calendar for the CFP. Georgia will be in the CFP field even with two losses. The tough schedule and championship reputation will ensure that. There’s a high likelihood the Bulldogs will be in the top four of the final CFP rankings. None of that was going to change unless Beck announced he was going pro or there was a lot of unexpected roster attrition.

Instead, the Bulldogs came out of the spring cycle in better shape than any CFP hopeful. Now they just need to make it through the summer without more players getting arrested (or worse) for alleged driving offenses.