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Post Rare air for Georgia football

Monday April 21, 2008

The Senator says that the preseason talk around the Bulldogs has an "uncharted territory" feel to it, and I have to agree. It’s a challenge for the team, and excitement and optimism can seem like kryptonite to a fan base full of Munson disciples.

But a high preseason ranking wouldn’t be a first for a Mark Richt team. The Bulldogs were a consensus #3 in 2004, and they even started #1 according to the Sporting News. The outcome of 2004 notwithstanding, a lot was expected of the final year for Greene and Pollack. The Senator’s right, though: there’s just a different feeling about the hype surrounding this year’s team. Why the difference? I see two reasons, and both have to do with the aftermath of the 2003 season.

  1. Momentum
  2. The post-2003 college football landscape

Momentum. Though Georgia played in the 2003 SEC Championship, they didn’t finish the season well. They "won" the SEC East after an obscure tiebreaker broke a three-way tie with Tennessee and Florida. Then they got steamrolled by LSU in the Dome. Finally, the Dawgs escaped the Capital One Bowl in overtime against an ordinary Purdue team after blowing a lead in extraordinary fashion. It was 10-win season, and I’ll always consider that defense one of the best of the modern Georgia era, but that was a pretty shaky way to end the season. Though Greene and Pollack returned, there wasn’t much momentum from 2003 into 2004.

Contrast that picture with the current state of the program. Georgia has an active seven-game winning streak. They closed the season with double-digit wins over rivals Florida, Auburn, and Georgia Tech. Finally, they finished the season with a BCS embarrassment of Hawaii which earned Georgia the #2 ranking. The momentum began building right away as nearly all of the first looks at the 2008 season had Georgia at or near the top. The momentum has sustained itself through Signing Day and spring practice, and it shows no signs of letting up.

What does 2003 have to do with now? Given the drama towards the end of the 2007 season, the consensus in support of LSU’s championship is strong. Other contenders either didn’t win their conferences (Missouri, Georgia) or lost their bowls (Virginia Tech, Oklahoma, Ohio State). It was a different story of course in 2003 when LSU and Oklahoma played for the BCS championship while Southern Cal claimed the AP title after their bowl win.

The fallout from 2003 immediately established Southern Cal and Oklahoma as the teams to beat heading into 2004. LSU, as defending champion, was somewhat in the picture but was ranked no higher than third by any preseason poll. The Trojans and Sooners were so clearly established as #1 and #2 entering 2004 that even Georgia as #3 generated very little title noise.

(As an aside, I believe the above also explains why discussion of Auburn’s 2004 schedule as a factor keeping them from a shot at the national title is a red herring. No one was passing Southern Cal and/or Oklahoma unless one of those two lost a game. Auburn could have played the Colts, Patriots, and Steelers out of conference and still had no shot for anything better than #3.)

There is no such clarity heading into 2008. Instead the preseason talk has been to identify a pool of about eight contenders. Ohio State will be good again, but two title game losses have pundits nervous about naming them a favorite. Southern Cal will be in the mix as always. Georgia, Texas, Florida, LSU, Oklahoma, and Missouri have just as much place at the table. With a top ranking as much up for grabs this year as ever, why not Georgia?

Without a clear favorite entering the season, it will be interesting to see if that lends itself to greater poll volatility early in the season. Will the polls pick a #1 and stick with them, or will the first few weeks be an audition?

The Florida Factor. I can’t let this post go without mentioning this point. Last summer when everyone was talking about who was and wasn’t a national power, I put down three simple criteria that seemed to hold up. One was that you can’t be under another team’s thumb. Georgia had lost six straight to Florida entering the 2004 season. With that kind of track record in Jacksonville, it was pretty easy to dismiss Georgia as a title contender even at #3. Though it will take a few more wins (consecutive wins would be a big first step) to declare the Gator domination over, the Dawgs are certainly in a much better position vis-à-vis the Gators entering 2008 than they were entering 2004.

2 Responses to 'Rare air for Georgia football'

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  • Of course, Phil Steele would say, and I think he has shown (though who can keep up with all that text?), that “momentum” from one season to the next is mostly an illustion. That is what roasted Auburn in 2003, for instance. They finished “hot” the year before, so they were obviously going to be really good, but then they weren’t. Also, I think Clemson had the same thing happen to them in 03 or 04 (finished hot the year before, were bumped up higher than normal for that reason, did nothing noteworthy when the actual games were played).

    I’m not poo-pooing our boys. They DO deserve to be in the top 3 based on all the “on paper” criteria you can use to judge such things. But I’m just not sure “momentum” is a good reason in itself.

  • Continuity can be misleading, and it’s definitely no guarantee for Georgia this year. I know I’m contradicting myself a bit here, but continuity (in terms of Greene and Pollack anyway) was part of the reason for our high 2004 ranking, and we saw how that turned out. Turnover in college football is significant enough from year to year that each team has to be considered on its own. But while it can’t predict success next season, it does still explain why so many people are high on the Dawgs this spring. Also when you consider that the NFL isn’t taking much from the Dawgs this year, there’s still enough talent coming back to make the momentum point somewhat worth considering.