One guy I know — actually, I’m the guy — has picked Georgia to play Southern Cal for the BCS title. That prompted the usual round of carping from those who don’t care for the Bulldogs: “Georgia thinks it’s going to win the national championship every year, and it never does.”
Neither point is technically true — Georgia claims five national titles (two consensus, three iffy), and I don’t recall anyone seriously believing Ray Goff’s last team and Jim Donnan’s first team were bound for glory — but recent history does suggest that the Bulldogs do better when less is expected.
In the three Herschel Walker seasons (1980-82), UGA finished higher in the final Associated Press poll than in the preseason edition. The same was true for the first post-Herschel year, which yielded a giddy run to the Cotton Bowl. But Georgia has been ranked in the top 12 of the AP preseason poll six times since 1983, and only twice has it finished higher than it began.
Since early rankings have slotted the Bulldogs at No. 5 or thereabouts for the coming season, I thought it’d be fun — OK, maybe not fun — to analyze what happened the past half-dozen times much was anticipated. (A word regarding methodology: I used No.-12-in-the-preseason-AP-poll as my cutoff because I wanted to include the 1988 and 2003 seasons. I stopped at 12 because the Bulldogs have been ranked between 13th and 15th so often — eight times since 1983 — with no discernible trend. Four times they finished better than they started; four times they didn’t.)
1988: 12th in preseason, 15th in the final AP poll after going 9-3. Vince Dooley’s final team was picked by one guy — yep, same one — to go undefeated. Those Bulldogs didn’t make it through September unscathed. Early indicators: Troubling. A difficult opening victory against a Tennessee team that would finish 5-6; a 42-35 road win at Mississippi State that foretold issues on defense. First loss: At South Carolina on Sept. 24 as Todd Ellis picked Bill Lewis’ D to pieces. Subsequent losses: At Kentucky (yikes), at Auburn.
2000: 10th in preseason, 20th in the final poll after going 8-4. The team Donnan said he had “waited 55 years to coach” remains the last team he ever coached. He was fired by president Michael Adams after the regular season. Early indicator: Ominous. Linebacker Boss Bailey tore up his knee covering the season-opening kickoff against Georgia Southern. First loss: At South Carolina on Sept. 9. Quincy Carter threw five interceptions. Subsequent losses: Against Florida in Jacksonville, at Auburn in overtime, at home against Georgia Tech on the day George Godsey ran untouched through a host of NFL-caliber Bulldogs defenders.
2002: Ranked No. 8 in preseason, finished No. 3 after going 13-1. In Year 2 under Mark Richt, Georgia won the SEC for the first time in two decades. The division-clinching victory came at Auburn when Greene found Michael Johnson on fourth-and-14. Early indicators: All positive. A come-from-behind opening victory against Clemson; the Pollack snatch-and-grab victory at South Carolina; a last-gasp win at Alabama on Billy Bennett’s field goal. Blemish: A strangely uninspired loss to the Florida Gators of Ron Zook on Nov. 2.
2003: Ranked No. 11 in preseason, finished No. 7 after going 11-3. A second SEC East title was undercut by two losses to LSU, which in hindsight weren’t so awful — the Tigers wound up winning the BCS title. Early indicators: Again, all good. Georgia won 30-0 at Clemson in the opener and hammered South Carolina two weeks later. First loss: At LSU on Sept. 20. Tyson Browning took a screen pass 93 yards to tie matters inside the final two minutes, but a long kickoff return by Devery Henderson triggered the winning touchdown pass to Skyler Green. Subsequent losses: Another inexplicable defeat at the hands of the Zooker, a second loss to a by-then-clearly-superior LSU in the SEC title game.
2004: Ranked No. 3 in preseason; finished No. 7 after going 10-2. Still the biggest missed opportunity of Richt’s career. A senior-laden team didn’t even win its division. Early indicators: Mixed. Georgia rallied from 16 points down to win at South Carolina, but beat reigning champ LSU by 29 points in Athens. First loss: Against Tennessee at Sanford Stadium on Oct. 9, one week after the thrashing of LSU. That victory essentially gave the Vols the SEC East title. “We lost the wrong game,” Richt would say. Subsequent loss: At Auburn on a day when the Tigers — who would finish 13-0 — were dominant.
2008: Ranked No. 1 in preseason, finished No. 13 after going 10-3. Georgia was a hot item after the 2007 team finished No. 2 after a surprising 11-2 season. Early indicators: Awful. The offseason was marked by a flurry of Bulldogs arrests, and Georgia barely survived its first road test against middling South Carolina. First loss: Against Alabama on Sept. 27. The Tide led 31-0 at the half. It was Nick Saban’s first signature win as Bama’s coach. Subsequent losses: By 39 points to a Florida team that would take the BCS title, to Georgia Tech in Athens after leading by 16 at the half.
Conclusion: If you’re going to outperform high expectations, don’t lose early. Five of the past nine BCS champs have carried a loss, but only one of the five — Florida in 2008 — lost in September. Only twice in the six cases cited above did Georgia exit September undefeated. By way of contrast, Richt’s breakthrough season of 2002 featured an 8-0 start. All the more reason to underscore that Sept. 8 date in Columbia, Mo.
By Mark Bradley