ATLANTA – As we close the book on 2015, it’s hard to remember such a down year in Atlanta sports. Aside from the Hawks’ 60-win campaign and a couple big moments for Georgia State football and basketball, every single local sports team disappointed in ’15.
So let’s raise a glass and toast to new beginnings – and fewer disappointments – in the new year. Happy 2016, Atlanta sports fan!
1. Georgia football will be no better than they were in 2015
A 9-3 record got Mark Richt fired last month. With a true freshman QB, new offensive and defensive coordinators and potentially one of the nation’s toughest schedules, don’t expect much more in 2016. Kirby Smart will get this thing going to new heights, but it’s not happening overnight.
2. Nick Chubb will lead the SEC in rushing
So that 9-3 prediction was the bad news. The good news is Nick Chubb is a stud and he’ll be a healthy stud come fall. With Jacob Eason under center – or especially if Greyson Lambert somehow wins the QB job – the Dawgs will need to lean heavily on the rising junior running back.
Out west, expect defenses to stuff the box against Leonard Fournette, giving Nick Chubb the SEC rushing title.
3. Georgia Tech will make a bowl game…barely
After a 3-9 effort in 2015, the pressure will be on the Jackets to start a new bowl streak. It won’t be easy with two SEC clubs and pesky Georgia Southern on the non-conference schedule. Add to that a new look ACC Coastal with Mark Richt (Miami), Justin Fuente (Virginia Tech) and Bronco Mendenhall (Virginia) joining the mix. Wins will be tough to come by, but with a rejuvenated QB Justin Thomas leading the attack, the Jackets ought to be able to cobble together just enough to go 6-6.
Tech’s key win in 2016: breaking their two game losing streak to David Cutcliffe and Duke.
4. Paul Johnson keeps his job at Georgia Tech
A 3-9 season followed up by a 6-6 season isn’t going to excite much of the Georgia Tech fan base, but contractual complexities and the (fading) memory of an Orange Bowl win over Mississippi State will keep Paul Johnson out of the unemployment line. That seat will be scorching, though, in 2017.
5. So does Brian Gregory
The Jackets really shot themselves in the foot losing non-conference games to Georgia and East Tennessee State. Entering conference play at 10-3 – that’s assuming a win Tuesday night over Dusquesne – the Jackets have NIT written all over them. Not great for a once proud program, but after compiling a 68-87 record over the past five seasons it’s a step in the right direction.
Brian Gregory has the team playing more up tempo, yielding more points and more cheers at McCamish. He’ll get an invite to stick around for Year 6.
6. Falcons win a playoff berth in Year 2 under Dan Quinn
Dan Quinn and company know their strengths (not many) and their weaknesses (too many to count) and hopefully have already hatched a plan to right those wrongs in 2016. They won’t have many draft picks to work with, but if they hit a home run on a pass rusher or linebacker in the first round, plus see some development out of 2015’s top picks (Vic Beasley and Jalen Collins) Atlanta could have a top 10 defense next season.
We ought to see a pretty competitive battle between the Panthers, Falcons and Buccaneers for the NFC South crown in 2016. Whether or not the Birds come out on top, they’ll be well-positioned to claim a Wild Card spot. That’s, in part, because…
7. Devonta Freeman goes for 2,000 all-purpose yards
He’s a threat to run it, catch it, score it. After another offseason of strength and conditioning work – and with a new offensive coordinator – Freeman should deliver on 1,500 yards rushing, 500 yards receiving and 13 touchdowns. Needless to say, another Pro Bowl appearance is in the cards for the Falcons back.
8. Peyton Manning plays another season
Here’s a wild card for you. Call it a gut feeling, but if he’s even remotely healthy I don’t see Peyton wanting to quit after the way things have gone this season. That feeling is significantly stronger after the nonsense report by Al Jazeera.
Peyton may not ply his trade in Denver next year, but I get the sense someone will take a chance on the veteran QB, especially knowing the one-year windfall they’d get from ticket sales, merchandise sales, etc.
9. Hawks end their season in the Eastern Conference semis
Last season’s run to the Eastern Conference Finals was great, but that was a stronger team than the 2015-’16 Hawks. And as good as that team was, they had to really fight to get out of a round that was previously the high water mark for the franchise.
The Hawks lose to the Raptors in six, then watch as Toronto takes down LeBron and the Cavs in seven. Golden State wins the whole thing in a sweep.
10. Al Horford shuns free agency, re-signs in Atlanta
Big Al’s having another quietly solid season, his ninth in Atlanta. He’ll be a free agent at season’s end and should have plenty of suitors lining up to offer a significant raise over the current $12 million he’s making.
Trouble is, Al likes it in Atlanta. He’s been one of the leaders of this team for several seasons. He’s a great fit in Coach Bud’s system. And surely Al realizes he’s one contract away from becoming an all-time Hawk, with his number raised in the rafters of Philips Arena.
11. Braves will make the playoffs…
…the Gwinnett Braves, that is. For that matter, you can pencil in Mississippi and Rome for championship runs, too. Basically anybody but the Atlanta Braves.
After another flurry of offseason trades, the Johns (Hart and Coppolella) have stocked the farm system with plenty of talent – even some bats this time around – and positioned the big league club to be competitive in 2017 and beyond. Until then, you can call Lawrenceville title town, because that’s where the big stars in the Braves’ system will be.
12. Atlanta Braves will have the worst record in Major League Baseball
It’s saying a lot, but when you take two of the only Major League-caliber players on your team – Shelby Miller and Andrelton Simmons – and ship them elsewhere, you’re not going to be any better than you were in the first place.
You may point to rebuilding Cincinnati or Colorado as potential challengers for the 100 loss club, but I have full faith in the Johns to again do their bidding at the trade deadline, setting the Braves up for yet another late season swoon.
BONUS – Attendance will hit all-time lows at Turner Field
You can pick your reason for this one:
– Ill will from fans who’ve seen their favorite players dealt
– Ill will from fans who are seeing their team moved out of the city
– Ill will from fans who don’t want to pay top ticket prices (and parking, and snacks) for a last place team
It’s going to be sparse this season at the Ted and maybe – if the Johns’ prospects don’t pan out – at SunTrust in 2017, too.
ODDS AND ENDS
13. Ronda Rousey avenges her loss to Holly Holm
I’m not a big UFC guy, but it seems there would be a lot of money in a rematch. If and when that happens, Ronda Rousey’s a bad lady. She learns her lesson from the first fight and ends this one within the first minute.
14. Jordan Speith wins another two major tournaments
Speith was a revelation in 2015. Looking ahead, he’s got ample opportunities to repeat the feat in the new year. He’s got chances at the Masters, U.S. Open, the British and the PGA Championship, plus the Ryder Cup and Olympics. Six major opportunities for signature wins, Speith will capitalize at least twice.
15. Serena Williams wins another three
Serena Williams is 34 years old. She’s ancient by tennis standards. Yet she’s the best player in the women’s game by a wide margin. Serena should win Wimbledon and the U.S. Open and she’s got a great shot at the Australian Open. Add to that the decision to play the Olympic competition on hard court instead of clay. It’s going to be another big year for the greatest player in women’s tennis history.
16. Team USA wins the medal count at the 2016 Rio Olympics
This one’s pretty much a no-brainer. So to raise the degree of difficulty, I’ll give ten medals to the field. There, that’s a little bit more fair. USA! USA! USA!