On a day when a popular College Football Playoff pick fell to a middling Big Ten team (LSU to Wisconsin), two SEC West contenders squared off with Los Angeles-based Pac-12 heavyweights (Alabama-USC, Texas AM-UCLA) and a participant in last year’s title game faced a tricky matchup at a hostile venue (Clemson-Auburn), it would have been easy to gloss over this intriguing matchup in Atlanta. Georgia and North Carolina, a not-so-neutral neutral-site tilt at the Georgia Dome, served as a sneaky-good late-afternoon treat on an opening weekend packed with compelling matchups.
Here are three thoughts on the Bulldogs’ 33–24 win:
1. Nick Chubb is back
Admit it: You probably overlooked Nick Chubb. The glut of talented running backs in the Power 5 conferences—from Stanford’s Christian McCaffrey to LSU’s Leonard Fournette to Florida State’s Dalvin Cook to Oregon’s Royce Freeman—obscured the Bulldogs junior’s status as one of the most electric offensive players in the country. Consider Saturday a simple reminder of the fact that Chubb is, indeed, good. Very good.
After suffering a major knee injury last October, Chubb sat, watched and rehabbed while the Bulldogs failed to win the SEC East and underwent a coaching change. In the meantime, Fournette, McCaffrey and Cook all delivered stellar campaigns, planting themselves on the shortlist of 2016 Heisman Trophy favorites. Chubb belonged in that discussion before he went down, but it was easy to forget this off-season, as seemingly more attention was devoted to Georgia’s new coach and quarterback situation.
On Saturday, Chubb didn’t just show that he’s recovered from the injury. He demonstrated—with 222 yards and two touchdowns on 32 carries (6.9 yards per carry)—why the Bulldogs will be able to lean on him as they try to claim a division title in Kirby Smart’s first season. Chubb ran hard, danced around defenders and burst through would-be tacklers, powering a Bulldogs offense with a still-in-progress passing game. Late in the fourth quarter, as Georgia looked to pull away from a resilient opponent, Chubb delivered a haymaker, dashing 55 yards for a touchdown to give the Bulldogs a double-digit lead.
Chubb also got some help from true freshman Brian Herrien and senior Brendan Douglas, who tallied 82 yards on 10 carries combined with a touchdown, while No. 2 back Sony Michel was sidelined with a broken arm. Overall, it amounted to an encouraging outing from Georgia’s best overall player, and the backfield depth the Bulldogs showcased offered more cause for optimism.
2. Georgia has a quarterback
The Bulldogs announced this week that Greyson Lambert, a fifth-year senior who started 12 games for them last season after transferring from Virginia, would start against North Carolina. The starter designation, notable though it was after an off-season of speculation, seemed mostly academic. Lambert may have been named QB 1, but it’s clear who Georgia’s signal-caller of the future is: Jacob Eason.
Smart gave the true freshman a shot to validate his massive recruiting hype Saturday, and Eason responded admirably. He looked comfortable running the Bulldogs’ offense and flashed impressive arm talent, completing 8 of his 12 pass attempts for 131 yards with a touchdown. Eason guided Georgia on a pivotal drive near the end of the third quarter, an 11-play, 75-yard sequence punctuated by a well-designed flip to junior Isaiah McKenzie for a 17-yard score.
Eason wasn’t facing a great defense—though stud UNC cornerbacks M.J. Stewart and Des Lawrence shouldn’t be discounted—and he had a top-notch running back to fall back on in Chubb. But it was hard not to get excited about his debut. For a true freshman facing a ranked opponent, Eason was about as good as could have been expected. And there’s reason to believe he’ll get better throughout the season.
Eason didn’t lead the first-team offense on the field to start the game, and he didn’t stay under center for the entirety of the rest of the game after checking in for Lambert in the second quarter, but it seems inevitable he’ll be Georgia’s clear No. 1 at some point in the near future. When Smart persuaded Eason to stick with Georgia after Mark Richt’s departure last year, it was hailed as a monumental recruiting victory for a new coach. Saturday provided glimpses of why.
3. Both of these teams could indirectly impact the playoff race
At the risk of delving into playoff talk waaaay too early in the season, this seems a good time to assess the impact both of these squads could have on their respective leagues’ chances of making the national semifinals. Neither Georgia nor North Carolina looks likely contend for a playoff spot; preseason power rankings and national polls slotted them outside of the top group of challengers. Still, the Bulldogs and Tar Heels could have a say in who and/or how many squads from the SEC and ACC make the cut.
If Georgia can build on its promising season-opening win, it will be able to compete with Florida and Tennessee in the SEC East. Win it, and the Bulldogs would probably face a team with designs on the playoff in the conference title game; whether it’s Alabama, Ole Miss, LSU or someone else, the SEC West champion should have a strong case for inclusion. Georgia could be that outfit’s final hurdle. Less likely but nonetheless not impossible, perhaps the Bulldogs, with the help of a manageable schedule, could put themselves in the discussion for a playoff berth.
North Carolina could impact the ACC’s playoff outlook in a similar fashion. While the Coastal Division is incredibly difficult to forecast, the Tar Heels are among the favorites to win it despite their season-opening defeat. If that happens, they’ll likely have a shot to upend either Clemson or Florida State (or, less likely, Louisville) in the conference championship game. A North Carolina win there could crush the ACC’s playoff hopes. Given the Tar Heels’ strength of schedule (two FCS opponents), a final four bid doesn’t feel like a plausible scenario after Saturday’s loss, but North Carolina could further muddle the ACC’s playoff prospects by upsetting the Seminoles in Tallahassee in early October.
However it shakes out, Georgia and North Carolina should affect the playoff in some way—though expecting either squad to be playing on the sport’s biggest stage on New Year’s Eve would be misguided.