Countdown to Kickoff: 20 days
As our 100 Days to Kickoff continues on, we begin our opponent previews to provide a quick look at each of the teams coming up on our schedule this season. Each team has changed and provides new challenges than in years past, so this week is all about learning about those changes and learning exactly what Georgia Tech’s opponents have to offer.
For starters, here’s a link to last year’s preview to explain Bama Lite if you’re unfamiliar.
The second-best football team in the state enters 2017 with its annual lofty expectations and preseason ranking. The team is perennially picked to win the East, be a playoff contender, and at least beat its in-state rival.
None of that happened last season.
Even though the team in Athens has a massive athletic budget, is placed in one of the most fertile states for recruiting, has the largest fan base in the state, and has every competitive advantage possible, Alabama Lite has not won their division since 2012, or finished ranked since 2014... where they finished one spot behind a Georgia Tech team they also lost to that season.
Despite seemingly pulling in top 10 recruiting classes for decades and winning the spring game national title last year, Alabama Lite and the Kirby Smart experiment went 7-5 during the regular season. This campaign featured losses to Georgia Tech, Tennessee, Ole Miss, and (hilariously) Vanderbilt.
The honeymoon phase came to a very quick end with Coach Smart in Athens after the snarling fan base fired a coach who averaged 10 wins per year. Time will tell if the self-imposed rebuild will pay off in the long term, but Smart needs to start winning quick if he hopes to keep his job. Kirby Smart and Paul Johnson both won the same amount of games against SEC East opponents last season.
The first thing missing from their sideline this season is several pieces of their renowned hedges after chunks disappeared during Thanksgiving weekend of the previous year. The Governor’s Cup is also gone.
Perhaps the most prominent player gone from offense in 2017 is big-play WR and all-world punt return man Isaiah McKenzie. The wideout averaged 14.4 yards per catch and ended the season with 7 touchdowns to his name. He was the leading big-play threat on the perimeter, and Eason will need a replacement to step up very quickly.
Alabama Lite actually loses both of their return men to graduation with kickoff returner Reggie Miller needing to be replaced as well.
On the defensive side, four players with significant playing time depart from the secondary. However, even the veteran players taking their place will be pushed by a stacked set of lower classmen.
The hedges did, in fact, grow back.
Jacob Eason enters into his sophomore year at the helm of the Alabama Lite offense. He is complimented by the backfield tandem of Nick Chubb and Sony Michel playing in their final seasons between the hedges. While the talent is certainly there, the issue for the offense will be whether or not they have a line that can protect Eason and block for the talented running backs. Guards Isaiah Wynn and Lamont Gaillard are the only returning starters. Coach Smart has plenty of highly rated recruits lined up to take their place, but they’re also inexperienced and young.
On the other side of the ball, Alabama Lite returns one of the most experienced defenses in the country this fall, including their entire starting front 7. Trenton Thompson returns after 9.5 tackles for loss last season and 5 sacks, as well as senior linebacker Davin Bellamy. Senior safeties Aaron Davis and Dominick Sanders return as well. However, the 2-deep in the secondary plunges almost straight to freshmen after them. The secondary can ill-afford any injuries this season if they hope to keep experience on the field.
Pushing the veterans in the secondary for playing time will be 5* safety Richard Lecounte III and four-stars Deangelo Gibbs, Tray Bishop, and William Poole. It’s a steep drop experience-wise, but the talent is certainly there.
Outside of some new players on the offensive line, fans will certainly also be keeping an eye out for 4* sophomore running back Elijah Holyfield, Evander’s son. Much to his chagrin, he may not see the field as often as he would like with the returns of Chubb and Michel for their senior seasons.
Chubb declined going to the NFL Draft after the Georgia Tech loss last season, because he was so passionate about the hedges that were torn up… not because the Ramblin’ Wreck is a rival that they care about losing to, or so they say.
A quick Google search of headlines for the 2017 season for Alabama Lite returns the usual headlines that are printed every year in regard to the team in Athens: Will UGA be the next SEC team outside of Alabama to win a natty?, 5 reasons they can win the East in 2017, 3 ways they can win the East in 2017, How Eason and Coach Smart can win the East, and stop me if you’ve heard this before.
The most underachieving team in college football will presumably remain just that. All of the arguments for Alabama Lite having a breakthrough season this year amount to, “team that went 7-5 last season returns everyone that helped them go 7-5 last season and are now expected to make The Playoffs.”
Half of their division is made up of head coaches from the Saban coaching tree with schools trying to be like Alabama. It is not coincidentally the weakest division among the Power 5 conferences, which makes Alabama’s Lite’s continued on-field mediocrity all the more damning, and their future all the more uncertain. Imitation has certainly not worked for anyone in the conference yet.
Projected Record: 7-5 (5-3 SEC)
What’s the good word?!