(Last update: 2:10 p.m.)
In two weeks, this becomes less about perception than reality.
Games start, the season unfolds, myths get busted, the guy on the bar stool who never said a word before suddenly says I told you so, a Big 12 coach locks a player in the broom closet and eventually we get to January and scream about the BCS. It’s college football’s circle of life.
But for now, it is about perceptions, and this much has become clear: Pollsters believe Georgia Tech has passed Georgia on the football field.
This is what consecutive years of failed expectations and a five-loss season will do to a program.
When last season ended in Shreveport, the Bulldogs were not ranked in the final Associated Press poll for the first time since 1996. That also left them behind the Jackets (13th) for the first time since 2000.
When this season begins, Georgia will trail Tech in the preseason polls for the first time since 2001, which is the year Mark Richt was hired. The AP’s preseason rankings were released Saturday. They’re similar to the coaches’ poll that came out two weeks ago, which had Tech ranked 17th and Georgia 21st. The gap in the AP poll is a bit wider: The Jackets are 16th and the Dogs are No. 23.
It’s worth nothing that the AP is no longer part of the BCS formula, having pulled out after the 2004 season because of the illogical selection process, to say nothing of the fact orchestrating a No. 1 vs. No. 2 game and rendering all other bowls relatively insignificant is just a bad idea. But the AP still is the most watched preseason and in-season poll, and it fuels what many previously believed:
Georgia has lost the benefit of the doubt.
This bit of reality won’t go over well in Athens. Richt inherited a program that hadn’t won an SEC championship since 1982. He proceeded to win two in his first five seasons. Then Georgia finished strong in 2007 to end the year at No. 2. Such cachet tends to carry over in polls from year to year.
But a preseason No. 1 ranking in 2008 turned out to be only a gateway to lopsided losses to Alabama and Florida, and a home upset by Georgia Tech (in coach Paul Johnson’s first season). Then came last year’s tumble to 8-5. Richt began to feel some heat for really the first time in his tenure. The Dogs now are at a prove-it stage. At Tech, most assume the arrow is pointed up. In Georgia, few are assuming anything.
The Jackets are 20-7 in Johnson’s first two seasons and went 11-3 with an ACC championship last season. They lost four stars (Demaryius Thomas, Jonathan Dwyer, Derrick Morgan, Morgan Burnett) to the NFL draft. But perceptions remain that they’re better than Georgia. Why?
“We won more games than they did last year,” Johnson logically concluded Saturday morning, when asked about the recent coaches’ poll.
Asked if he cared about perceptions, he gave the expected response: “Not really. I just worry about what I perceive and what actually happens. I’m more worried about what happens at the end of the year. Being ranked before somebody at the beginning might be nice, but I’d rather be ranked in front of them at the end.”
Since the non-ranking in 2001, the Dogs have ranked No. 8, 11, 3, 13, 15, 13, 1 and 13 in the preseason under Richt. At 23, they’re now closer to the “others receiving votes” category with Connecticut, Temple and Middle Tennessee State.
“I am thankful we are ranked,” Richt said Saturday when asked about the AP poll. He added, “I hope we play well enough to move up. That’s the plan.”
That’s the way to play this. Richt raised the expectation level at Georgia. This shows how missteps in consecutive seasons can significantly alter public opinion. Georgia finished out of the rankings four consecutive seasons (1993-96), but when it finished 10th in 1997, the Dogs suddenly were back in the preseason rankings in 1998 (19th) for the first time in five years.
It figured there would be a hangover after last season. The preseason rankings might be cause for debate, but that’s what rankings are all about. There’s no reason for Georgia to scream. In two weeks, the games start, and the Dogs will have a chance to change perceptions.