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By Don Stone - Georgia Football Magazine and Football Atlanta
A lot has changed since this time last year for the Georgia Bulldogs. Heck, a lot has happened since they last played...beating Penn State 24-17 in the Taxslayer Bowl on January 2. Their 10-3 record is misleading, normally indicating that a team had a pretty successful season. Quite the opposite. A loss to Alabama who went 14-1 and ultimately played in the National Championship Game should be nothing to be ashamed of. But, going in, the Bulldogs were actually favored to win that game. Instead, they got embarrassed at home 38-10. Talk resumed that head coach Mark Richt couldn't win the big one. It continued the next week when they lost at rival Tennessee 38-31.
On top of that, the Dawgs lost star running back Nick Chubb with a season ending leg injury in the Vols game. And his loss was felt bigtime in the running game. UGA was held without a rushing TD in their next three games. Insult to injury when Richt showed no confidence in his starting quarterback, Grayson Lambert, against rival Florida. Instead, he started third string QB Faton Bauta resulting in their third loss, again in humiliating fashion, 28-3.
The writing was on the wall for Richt. In spite of winning the remaining four games on his schedule, he was fired the day after the final 13-7 win at Georgia Tech. It was the 11th time in Richtís 15 seasons at UGA that the coach had won at least nine regular-season games. Richt (145-51) left as the second-winningest coach in Georgia football history, only behind the legendary Vince Dooley. But Richt is ahead of Dooley and first on the list in winning percentage (.738).
But, he's coaching for his alma mater now at Miami.
Georgia quickly went after Alabama Defensive Coordinator Kirby Smart but had to wait until the Crimson Tide was done playing on January 11 before he could take over full time.
In the nine months since, the new coach convinced hot shot freshman QB Jacob Eason, ranked as the top quarterback prospect in the nation, to keep his word and come to UGA. He has said and done all the right things through recruiting, spring and training camp and now puts his approach to the test by starting the season against a tough North Carolina team in the Chick-fil-A Kickoff Game this Saturday at the Georgia Dome with a scheduled 5:30pm kickoff.
The Tar Heels were a solid team in 2015 under fourth year coach Larry Fedora. They went 11-3, winning the ACC Coastal Division, their first double digit win season since 1997.
"We know there's going to be a guy under center who's going to be able to give it to Nick Chubb and the bevy of backs they have," Fedora said.
Who will be the starting QB at Georgia has been kept shrouded in mystery by Coach Smart...trying to gain a competitive advantage by remaining seemingly undecided between Eason and Lambert. Stories broke over the weekend that Eason was practicing with the first team. But, then it switched to Lambert earlier this week. Finally on Thursday it was officially announced that Lambert would start the game.
Fedora is right about the ground game. With a healthy Chubb and possibly healthy Sony Michel, expect Smart to stay on the ground for much of the game and chew up a ton of yards.
But the Heels have some weapons of their own. They scored 40.7 points per game last year with plenty of good receivers who can make long plays through the air. Running back Elijah Hood can be hard to bring down. Marquis Williams is gone at QB but junior quarterback Mitch Trubisky should be more than able to take over, completing 85 percent of his 47 pass attempts last season.
And, don't forget that they played the eventual National Champion Clemson Tigers tough losing 45-37 in the ACC Championship Game.
Some Things To Know About The Chick-fil-A Kickoff Game
∑ Statement Game with a lot on the Line: In addition to inaugurating the new college football season, the Chick-fil-A Kickoff Game has also served as a barometer for regular and post-season success. Since 2008, Kickoff Game winners have gone on to win New Yearís Six Bowl Games, division, conference and national championships, and finished out each respective season ranked in the top 10. How meaningful of a game is the Chick-fil-A Kickoff Game to UGA this year?
∑ A Rivalry Renewed: Itís been 45 years since the Bulldogs and Tar Heels faced off on the gridiron, but many may not realize how much of a border-war rivalry this used to be. Georgia and UNC have met 30 times since 1895, with Georgia leading the series 16-12-2. This yearís Chick-fil-A Kickoff Game renews the old rivalry and creates a new chapter in its storied history, as both teams will be appropriately vying for the chance to dawn the coveted Old Leather Helmet trophy.
∑ A Homecoming of Sorts: This yearís Chick-fil-A Kickoff Game will be a homecoming of sorts for a significant number of players on both teams. Not surprisingly, Atlanta will be well-represented for the Bulldogs, as they have more than 32 players from the Metro Atlanta area, including standouts such as Safety Dominick Sanders (Tucker), Center Brandon Kublanow (Marietta) and Linebacker Lorenzo Carter (Norcross). What will it be like for these players to return to their home state in such a marquee match-up on a national stage? Will it add any extra motivation that former high school teammates will be squaring off against one another, and that so many players on both teams are facing familiar foes?
∑ The Saban Effect: Neutral Site Kickoff Games to be the New Norm for Georgia? Much has been made about Nick Sabanís influence on Kirby Smartís coaching philosophy and demeanor after the two coached alongside each other for the past 10 seasons. Saban is known to be one of the strongest advocates for playing in opening weekend, neutral site games to kick off the season (Alabama has participated in four Chick-fil-A Kickoff Games since 2008, and is slated to play in one of next yearís games as well against FSU). Considering Kirbyís strong ties and appreciation for Sabanís strategic approach to the game, what are his views on playing in neutral site games, including the benefits he saw during his time at Bama? Will this become common place for the Dawgs moving forward under his watch?
∑ Defending Home Turf: Reportedly, 75 percent of the anticipated crowd at the Chick-fil-A Kickoff Game will be Bulldog fans. Considering Sanford Stadium is only 71 miles away from the Georgia Dome, and more than 32 Georgia players are from the Greater Atlanta area, the Dawgs will essentially be defending their home turf in this border-war, rivalry match-up against North Carolina. The road to the national championship comes through Atlanta, and Georgia would love nothing more than to start that road in the Georgia Dome this September at the Kickoff Game, and finish it here in December at the Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl, ultimately punching its ticket to Tampa.
Chick-fil-A Kickoff Game Day Filled with Fan Activities For Bulldog and Tar Heel Faithful
Fans heading to Atlanta
for the 2016 Chick-fil-A Kickoff Game will be treated to a bowl-like
atmosphere that includes a full slate of game day activities that kick
off well before No. 18 Georgia and No. 22 North Carolina take the field.
12:30 Ė 5:30 p.m. Tailgate Town built by the Home Depot (GWCC, West Plaza)
2:55 p.m. Pep Rally & Team Walks
presented by PNC Bank (GWCC, Halls C1-C2)
5:30 p.m. Chick-fil-A Kickoff Game at Georgia Dome
Go to the official Chick-fil-A
Kickoff Game website for more details -
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