Big expectations are nothing new for the Georgia Bulldogs’ football program.
Every year, the Bulldogs seem to be embellished during the preseason but more often than not fall way short of expectations. Maybe 2017 will be different.
No. 15 Georgia, behind a uniquely gifted running game and defense with almost the entire unit returning from last season, looks like it has a solid chance of getting back to the SEC Championship Game for the first time since 2012 and possibly win its first league title since 2005. It all starts Saturday with an early-evening kickoff against defending Sun Belt Conference champion Appalachian State, which is never an easy out for bigger schools.
For years, the Eastern division has been second fiddle to the West, losing in the SEC Championship game eight straight seasons. The SEC Championship is more important than ever now because it practically guarantees a spot in the four-team College Football Playoff bracket.
Could this year be different for the Bulldogs, coming off an 8-5 finish under first-year coach Kirby Smart in 2016? Yes.
It’s probably a better position for the Bulldogs to enter the season with only modest expectations, rather than, say, the kind they experienced in 2008. With the return of quarterback Matthew Stafford and running back Knowshon Moreno, Georgia was preseason No. 1 but went just 10-3 and finished 13th nationally.
Georgia’s football program has experienced a major change in its locker room culture with Smart, who was used to winning national titles as Nick Saban’s right-hand man at Alabama, as opposed to what felt like a constant return of 10-2 regular seasons under Mark Richt.
Bulldogs fans should expect national titles under Smart. As Georgia’s coach gains experience and traction coaching at the highest level of the college game, his mentor Saban continues to get older and will eventually spell the end of the Crimson Tide’s unbelievable dynasty.
However, it takes time to become a championship program. It was Year 3 before Saban won the first of his four national titles between 2009-2015 at Alabama.
Georgia has experience at all the positions that count most. Nick Chubb and Sony Michel lead possibly the best running back unit in the country, along with sophomore Elijah Holyfield and a pair of top-tier freshmen from outside the state.
Barring a major surprise, Jacob Eason, who in 2016 threw for the fourth-highest total for a Georgia freshman in school history (2,430 yards, 16 touchdowns) will retain his status as starting quarterback. Jake Fromm, the freshman from Warner Robins who threw for 12,745 yards at Houston County High, is waiting in the wings and could turn out to be an early contributor, should he be needed.
The defense — top to bottom — is likely the most talented side of the ball for the Bulldogs. Linebackers Lorenzo Carter, Reggie Carter and Roquan Smith give Georgia a strong push behind a line led by Trenton Thompson and John Atkins in the middle to stop the run in a league flush with amazing runnings backs: Ralph Webb (Vanderbilt), Damarea Crockett (Missouri) and Benny Snell Jr. (Kentucky) in the East; and Derrius Guice (LSU) and Bo Scarbrough (Alabama) on the other side of the league.
Georgia’s schedule is as favorable as possible playing in the SEC. League road games are Tennessee (Sept. 30), Vanderbilt (Oct. 7), Florida in Jacksonville (Oct. 28) and Auburn (Nov. 11).
The best-case scenario for Georgia this season would be for a run that closely resembled the Bulldogs from 2007. That year, Georgia entered the season No. 13 and, after two early-season SEC losses, became one of the strongest programs in the country and beat Hawaii by 31 in the 2008 Sugar Bowl.
Always be skeptical of a program overhyped in the preseason by us media types. With a No. 15 ranking to start the season, Georgia is probably right where it wants to be in 2017.
Bill Murphy is sports editor of The Times. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 770-718-3415.