No. 16: Georgia

Many of my Midwestern Big-Ten-fan friends like to rip on the SEC, but you won’t hear that from me. The Southeastern Conference’s credentials as the best league in the nation are firmly established.

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It has the best players, the best depth of teams, a generally excellent set of coaches and an unblinking determination to win.[membership level="0"] The rest of this article is available to subscribers only - to become a subscriber click here.[/membership] [membership]

The argument that the SEC doesn’t schedule quality nonconference opponents is baloney. Many have season-ending rivalry games (Florida-FSU, Georgia-Georgia Tech, South Carolina-Clemson). And SEC schools regularly play high-profile early games. This year, those games include LSU-Wisconsin, Alabama-USC, Tennessee-Virginia Tech and Ole Miss-FSU, to name a few.

Other leagues have excellent talent, no doubt. What separates the SEC is the number of exceptional defensive linemen and the overall team speed in the conference. How they would fare in a Big Ten or Pac-12 classroom is an open question in my mind. But that’s a can of worms best left unopened at this point.

How tough is the SEC on the football field? Tough. And Georgia is a perfect example.

This is a school with great tradition (Herschel Walker, Uga, Vince Dooley, the World’s Largest Outdoor Cocktail Party) and all the ingredients to win—and a bar that is set high by Dawgs fans.

Mark Richt is a good example of that.

I remember being around him when he was Bobby Bowden’s offensive coordinator and thinking, ``This guy is gonna get it done somewhere.’’

He had a nice 15-year run at Georgia that included two SEC titles and 10 double-digit-win seasons—four of them in the last five years.

But he never quite got over the hump. Blame it on Florida, Tennessee, South Carolina and even Missouri, dad-gum it.

And so, it was time to move on, to his alma mater, Miami.

In his place comes one of the most coveted assistants in the annals of college football—the aptly named Kirby Smart.

Smart, 40, not only is the longtime defensive coordinator under man/myth/legend Nick Saban.

He grew up in Bainbridge, Ga., was a Bulldogs DB in the ‘90s and has done two brief stints on the Georgia staff. Over the years, he reportedly turned down a lot of tempting offers to leave the Saban nest.

Georgia, though, sure seems like the perfect fit. For him. And the Dawgs.

Smart won’t have the luxury of time. He’ll be expected to win early and often, beginning with a career opener vs. North Carolina, plus Ole Miss and Tennesssee in his first five games.

On the plus side, the Dawgs, who return 14 starters, are solid at running back if Nick Chubb and Sony Michel are healthy. Quarterback is unsettled, but freshman Jacob Eason has a huge upside and senior Greyson Lambert is experienced.

Defensively, Georgia will need some newcomers to perform well in the front seven, but the defensive backfield all are back.

In other words, there’s a lot to like about Georgia as its highly regarded new coach makes his debut.

But with a trip to Ole Miss on Sept. 24 followed by a pivotal home date against Tennessee on Oct. 1, the Dawgs will learn very quickly how high the ceiling goes in Smart’s first season.

Being good in the rugged SEC merely gets you a seat at the table. You have to play your cards right, too.

My take on the Rankman and Blau No. 16s: I’ve always liked Boise State, especially now because the son-in-law of Keiko and Juco, our favorite sushi restaurant owners, teaches there. And because the newly retired Keiko and Juco are moving there to be near their grandchild and to admire the blue field. Maybe the Broncos are the 16th best team in the nation, Duf. It’s just difficult to know because their schedule is filled with so much uncooked fish. . . As for Baylor at No. 16, I’m guessing that if this Media Guides website doesn’t work out, Blau is going to law school.[/membership]