As rallying cries go, this one is a bit weird: “We’re better off now because nobody thinks we’re the best team in the country.” But this is college football, where anything is grist for the motivational mill.
A year ago the Georgia Bulldogs found themselves ranked No. 1, and they didn’t like the way that turned out. So now they’ve decided it’s better not to have drawn a single vote to finish first in the SEC East. (Florida was a unanimous choice at the conference’s Media Days.) It’s better being considered not nearly as good.
Mark Richt told the Greater Atlanta Bulldog Club last month that he feels he “has a lot more juice” going into this season. Last year, he recalled, he’d gone on a mission trip and had returned to face a barrage of questions on two fronts – the number of off-field incidents involving Georgia players, which hasn’t been an issue this time, and being the first team in school history ranked preseason No. 1, which isn’t an issue, either.
And there is a compelling recent precedent. In 2005 the Bulldogs were picked to finish third in the East for what seemed good reason: They’d lost their longtime starting quarterback. Indeed, that’s what some players chanted during the celebration on the floor of the Georgia Dome after they’d beaten LSU for the 2005 league title: “Third in the East … third in the East …”
We don’t yet know if Joe Cox can do as D.J. Shockley did four years ago – steer his team to a championship after waiting his turn – but the parallel alone gives the Bulldogs hope. So does the return of two anchors from injury: Trinton Sturdivant, the sturdy left tackle, and Jeff Owens, the forceful defensive tackle.
Georgia’s hope this season is to be strong where it was weak in 2008 – up front. Nobody is suggesting Matthew Stafford and Knowshon Moreno won’t be missed, but the Bulldogs should never lack for talent at the skill positions. Cox doesn’t have Stafford’s arm and Caleb King lacks Moreno’s wiggle, but these are still SEC-caliber players.
That said, this will mark only the fourth time in Richt’s tenure at Georgia, which is entering its ninth season, the Bulldogs have approached a season with an untested No. 1 quarterback. In 2001, David Greene’s first season as starter, they finished 8-4. In 2006, the season that began with Joe Tereshinski III as No. 1 and saw Cox start at Ole Miss and finished with Stafford in control, they were 9-4.
Put another way, the two worst seasons under Richt – not to say that a four-loss campaign is “bad” – have come when the No. 1 quarterback was a relative newbie. The belief here is that 2009 will be a similarly lesser year, that four losses will again be the result, that this will be more like 2006 than 2005.
Then again, I was among those who believed Georgia would be the best team in the land in 2008. So I’m already one of the prime motivators. Glad to be of service, guys.
Sept. 5, Oklahoma State at Stillwater: Some Bulldog fans see OSU as another Arizona State. Different league, folks. OSU 30, Georgia 20.
Sept. 12, South Carolina at Athens: The Evil Genius marred 2007 season by winning at Sanford Stadium. Not this time. Georgia 24, South Carolina 14.
Sept. 19, Arkansas at Fayetteville, Ark.: Tempting to go with the Hogs, but the Richt road mojo will carry the day. Georgia 21, Arkansas 20.
Sept. 26, Arizona State at Athens: OK, here’s the real Arizona State, and here’s the first easy win of 2009. Georgia 31, Arizona State 10.
Oct. 3, LSU at Athens: Big-time opponent enters big-time environment and leaves with big-time victory. LSU 24, Georgia 23.
Oct. 10, Tennessee at Knoxville: Any letdown potential after LSU will be overridden by the Kiffin Factor. Georgia 24, Tennessee 13.
Oct. 17, Vanderbilt at Nashville: Another road game in the Volunteer State, this one tougher. But still a Georgia “W.” Georgia 27, Vanderbilt 20.
Oct. 31, Florida at Jacksonville: Strange things happen on Halloween, don’t they? Nothing this strange, I fear. Florida 30, Georgia 17.
Nov. 7, Tennessee Tech at Athens: Don’t look now, but Georgia’s sixth victory will be its third in a row over a team from Tennessee. Georgia 42, Tennessee Tech 10.
Nov. 14, Auburn at Athens: Yes, the road team tends to win in this strange series. But not when Gene Chizik coaches the road team. Georgia 24, Auburn 14.
Nov. 21, Kentucky at Athens: Three in a row for the surging Bulldogs, setting the stage for the big game in Atlanta. Georgia 33, Kentucky 17.
Nov. 28, Georgia Tech at Atlanta: Willie Martinez has had a year to figure out Paul Johnson’s offense. He’ll need another. Georgia Tech 30, Georgia 24.