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South Carolina 2016 opponent preview: Georgia looks to reach next level with Kirby Smart

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The first-time head rolls up his sleeves and gets to work in Athens.

NCAA Football: Georgia Spring Game Brett Davis-USA TODAY Sports

In a stroke of irony, the SEC’s two longest tenured head coaches - who both started in the league in 2001 - both saw their careers come to an end at their respective schools last year. One, Gary Pinkel, retired from his post at Missouri amid a diagnosis of non-Hodgkin lymphoma. The other, Mark Richt, was fired at Georgia after the Dawgs failed to win a SEC title in ten seasons. While I’m on the side of the fence that the Richt firing was unjust, and while I think that he’ll do very well down at Miami, I can see why the fans and donors had become impatient with him despite his body of work.

So what did Georgia do? They went out and hired Alabama defensive coordinator Kirby Smart. Smart, who played for Ray Goff and Jim Donnan (Richt’s predecessor) in Athens, while also serving as Richt’s running backs coach in 2005, was basically priority #1 for Greg McGarity as soon as the post came open. And from the moment Smart was introduced on December 7, he was quickly able to fire the fanbase up. (While they didn’t get to the magic 95,000 number he was hoping for at the spring game, they came pretty close: 93,000.)

Smart’s hiring raises some questions. Did he benefit solely from being part of college football’s great dynasty at Alabama? Can he make the coordinator-to-head coach transition that has been a challenge for some? How much rope will he get if the team doesn’t bring home an SEC championship within the next few years? On the field, Smart faces some questions of his own: Who will play quarterback - Brice Ramsey, Greyson Lambert (remember him?), or true freshman Jacob Eason? Who can fill the void left by Malcolm Mitchell at wide receiver? How do you replace the holes at linebacker left by Leonard Floyd, Jordan Jenkins and Jake Ganus? Will Nick Chubb be the Nick Chubb he was before he was hurt against Tennessee?

Last year: 10-3 (5-3 SEC)

Best returning player(s): Sony Michel and Nick Chubb

Southern v Georgia Photo by Todd Kirkland/Getty Images

If things at quarterback get hairy, Smart knows that he can lean on his dynamic running back duo to keep the game moving along. Michel stepped in very nicely for Chubb after the latter went down with a gruesome knee injury, finishing with 1,136 yards on 218 carries (5.2 yards per attempt) and eight touchdowns on the ground, along with three more through the air. Chubb, for his part, registered 92 carries and 747 yards (8.1 yards a pop) in six games before getting hurt. While the exact timetable of Chubb’s return is still a little up in the air, Michel has proven he can carry the load, except he got injured as well in an ATV accident. I’m actually looking forward to seeing how the two complement each other if and when the duo get back out on the field.

Prognosis: One thing is for certain: Georgia under Smart will be playing some amped-up defense. However, it’s obviously only one half of the equation. While they’ll be set at running back with the Michel/Chubb combo (probably more Michel when he returns than Chubb to start), there’s still some questions to be answered at quarterback (the least of which being who will start), WR, and linebacker at the time of this writing. Having said that, the schedule sets up nicely for at worst a nine-win campaign as I have them splitting against Florida and Tennessee to maybe earn their spot in Atlanta. But if the team can’t solve things at LB and fall victim to the same shaky QB play that hurt them during 2015, especially with the possibility that their two top RBs might not be ready to go against North Carolina, then it honestly might be closer to seven or eight.