Georgia begins Kirby Smart era against rising Tar Heels
ATLANTA >> Tired of sending countless players to the NFL but going a decade since its last Southeastern Conference championship, Georgia decided that a change in leadership was needed to get to the next level.
Exit Mark Richt.
Enter Kirby Smart.
The longtime Alabama defensive coordinator, who knows a thing or two about championships working for Nick Saban, will take the sideline as a head coach for the first time when the No. 18 Bulldogs open the season Saturday against No. 22 North Carolina in Atlanta at the Chick-fil-A Kickoff Game.
Smart downplayed his debut and wants his players to treat it as just another game.
Good luck with that.
It's the first since 2001 that Georgia will be led by a new head coach.
"This is like kind of anti-climactic for me," Smart insisted. "My focus has been on this team, getting this team better. There are a lot of things I can't control outside that, that have nothing to do with the outcome of the game."
North Carolina is coming off an 11-win season, its most victories since 1997 and matching the school record.
Coach Larry Fedora realizes the significance of building on that success with a victory over the Bulldogs.
"It's a big game," he said. "It's against a great opponent who has a great tradition. They are well known. It is a good measuring stick for where we are with this program right now."
Some things to watch for Saturday at the Georgia Dome:
CHUBB'S RETURN: After a horrific knee injury midway through last season, star running back Nick Chubb made a faster-than-expected recovery for the Bulldogs. He's fully cleared for the opener and Smart said there are no limitations on how many carries Chubb might get. It will be intriguing to see if he's still the same dynamic back he was before the injury. Chubb was a Heisman-touted player who had tied Herschel Walker's school record with 13 straight 100-yard games before he went down. Sony Michel and freshman Elijah Holyfield are both nursing injuries, so Chubb figures to get plenty of carries in his first game back — especially against a North Carolina defense that ranked 121st nationally (247.4 yards per game) and surrendered nearly 1,000 yards on the ground in its last two games against high-powered offenses.
SIGNATURE WIN: Despite last year's success, which include an appearance in the Atlantic Coast Conference title game, North Carolina is still seeking the sort of victory that will stamp Fedora's program as a true national powerhouse. North Carolina hasn't beaten an SEC school since a victory over Tennessee in the Music City Bowl to end the 2010 season. Beating Georgia would show North Carolina might be capable of challenging the ACC dominance of Clemson and Florida State.
EASON WATCH: Less than 72 hours before kickoff, Georgia finally confirmed that fifth-year senior Greyson Lambert remains the starting quarterback. He started 12 games a year ago and set a school record for lowest interception percentage (two picks in 256 passes). But it seems just a matter of time before the Bulldogs turn to Jacob Eason, a touted freshman who is clearly the quarterback of the future. Smart said the depth chart will remain a work in progress. "It's never over," he said. "It's continuous, just like who the right corner is. If he doesn't play good, then we have to change it."
HOLLINS OUT: North Carolina will have to play the first half without one of its top deep threats and special team players. Receiver Mack Hollins must sit out the first two quarters after receiving a targeting penalty in a bowl loss to end last season. Hollins not only plays on four special-team units, he had 30 catches for 745 yards and eight touchdowns — leading the national with 24.8 yards per reception. Smart calls Hollins a "dominant feature player."
EXPLOSIVE HEELS: North Carolina set school records by averaging 40.7 points and 486.9 yards per game. The Tar Heels were especially dynamic during a two-game November run, piling on 125 points in routs of Duke and Miami. Running back Elijah Hood, an All-ACC pick last season with 1,463 yards and 17 touchdowns, looks forward to matching up with Chubb. "You definitely feel the competition," Hood said. "You just want to show who you are." Georgia figures to have its hands full containing North Carolina, especially with four new starters at linebacker.
AP Sports Writer Aaron Beard in Chapel Hill, North Carolina contributed to this report.
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