The mood was as sedate as is possible in a ballroom containing 1,000 or so barking human beings. There was anticipation, yes, but the annual meeting of the Greater Atlanta Bulldog Club always brings anticipation. What was lacking at the Cobb Galleria this July was the sense that Georgia’s time is at hand.
Because, to be blunt, it probably isn’t. The Bulldogs will play football this fall in a division that houses the reigning national champion, which is also the prohibitive choice to retain its title. A year ago the Bulldogs sat preseason No. 1 for the first time in school history, but the 2009 team seems properly slotted somewhere in the second 10.
This won’t be a bad team. (Mark Richt has never had anything close to a bad team.) Neither does it seem a champion-in-waiting. It has a new quarterback and a new tailback and the same defensive coordinator, though Willie Martinez has gotten a co-coordinator in John Jancek. Also different is the air of expectancy. This time there isn’t one.
Most summers since 2002 have been filled with Georgia optimism, Georgia bluster (from fans if not Richt), Georgia manifest destiny. That’s what happens when a new coach arrives and wins three division titles and two SEC championships. His constituency comes to believe anything is possible, and for most of that time anything was. But 2009 has been all but conceded to the repellent reptiles.
Yes, the first question to Richt from the audience had to do with “stomping the Gators” and it drew the expected cheer, but there was no passion behind it. Even as Richt was saying, “We’ve never gone into a game thinking we’re not going to win it,” the game in Jacksonville on Halloween already seems a bridge too far. If you couldn’t beat Florida in 2008 with Matthew Stafford and Knowshon Moreno, are you apt to do with Joe Cox and Caleb King?
That said, we shouldn’t confuse this season of presumed retrenching with those two angst-ridden decades that spanned Vince Dooley’s last SEC title and Richt’s first. Bulldog backers believe in Richt in a way they never believed in Ray Goff or Jim Donnan, and for good reason: Richt has proved he can win at the highest level of the nation’s finest conference, and there’s no reason to think he won’t again soon.
Tim Tebow has one year of eligibility remaining. Shrewd as he is, Urban Meyer will never find another Tebow. (Has Georgia found another Herschel?) To use a Meyer expression, the checkers will be equal — or at least more equal — when Georgia and Florida meet in 2010. And now for the really good news: There seems no other school in the SEC East apt to trouble the top two anytime soon.
Kentucky and Vanderbilt are just happy to have the occasional winning seasons. The threat of Spurrier in Columbia has all but subsided. And Lane Kiffin might be able to recruit players to Tennessee but will have to coach them once there, lest he become a brasher Ron Zook. We can believe the Vols are back only when they beat somebody on an autumn Saturday, not a Wednesday in February.
If this sounds like cold consolation to Georgia folks — your team is still good but not quite great — it really shouldn’t. The Bulldogs aren’t going away. Last season didn’t turn out as planned (not that 10-3 can ever be dismissed) and this one wouldn’t appear to be a great leap forward, but there’s always 2010. Tim Tebow won’t be around then. But Mark Richt will be.