ATLANTA — Georgia is trying to get back to where it was not so long ago.
Boise State wants to bust up the BCS — again.
For one, the hopes of a season will take a major blow on the very first Saturday.
“This is definitely a statement game for us,” Georgia defensive end Abry Jones said. “We’re trying to re-establish ourselves in the college football world.”
No. 5 Boise State is already well established as one of the nation’s winningest programs and an annual threat to crack the BCS monopoly. But the Broncos know there’s no room for error if they want to play in a major bowl for the third time in six years and, who knows, maybe get a crack at an improbable national title.
Last season, an overtime loss to Nevada — the lone defeat of the season — forced Boise State to settle for the Las Vegas Bowl. The Broncos certainly can’t afford a loss to 19th-ranked Georgia, the most appealing non-conference game on their schedule as they move from the Western Athletic Conference to the Mountain West.
Coach Chris Petersen knows his team just doesn’t carry the same gravitas as the more established BCS programs — even one such as Georgia, coming off its first losing season since 1996.
“Every year is a new ballgame,” he said. “Yeah, there’s some things we’ve done in the past. But no one really cares about that once this season starts. It’s ‘What have you done for me lately?’ We get that. If we play well, win some games this year, people will think highly of us. If not, they’ll think, ‘Well, they used to be good.’”
The Bulldogs know how that feels. They won a pair of Southeastern Conference titles in Mark Richt’s first five years as coach. They finished No. 2 in the rankings in 2007, then started the next season ranked No. 1.
It’s pretty much been downhill ever since, culminating in last year’s 6-7 debacle that put the heat squarely on Richt to get the Bulldogs moving in the right direction. If not, he’ll likely be looking for a new job.
“A good way to get Georgia football back on the right track is to beat a top-five team,” quarterback Aaron Murray said. “Obviously, it would give us huge momentum for the rest of the season to win such a big game.”
The Bulldogs should definitely have a good idea where they stand after this contest at the Georgia Dome and the actual home opener a week later against No. 12 South Carolina, the defending SEC East champion.
“We’ll make our season with these two opening games,” tight end Orson Charles said. “From there, we just have to keep rolling.”
The most intriguing matchup in the Chick-fil-A Kickoff Game will be at quarterback. Boise State is led by Heisman Trophy candidate Kellen Moore, who was nation’s top-rated passer a year ago (71 percent completions, 3,845 yards, 35 touchdown, just six interceptions). Georgia counters with Murray, whose brilliant debut season (61 percent completions, 3.049 yards, 24 TDs, eight picks) was overshadowed by all the losses.
Moore lost his top two receivers, Titus Young and Austin Pettis, each of whom caught 71 passes. But no one expects much of a drop-off from the left-hander, who has gone from the guy no one wanted after high school (Idaho was the only other bowl subdivision school to offer a scholarship) to a fifth-year senior running the Broncos’ high-powered offense to perfection.
“He just has a really good feel for the game,” Petersen said. “Obviously, he’s smart and understands our system well. But he’s also one of those guys who just feels the game well. If everyone around him does his job, Kellen will play at a high level. The big key to making the quarterback look good is to do your job. We have some guys around him, and those guys are good players. If they do what they’re supposed to do, they’ll make plays.”
Murray would trade all the stats from his redshirt season for a few more victories. No matter how many yards he puts up, he knows a quarterback’s legacy is largely determined by the team’s record. In that respect, he got off to a rocky start.
“I just want to win some football games,” Murray said. “I was on winning teams in peewee. I was on winning teams in high school. We won two state championships. I don’t think I ever had more than two or three losses in a season. Last year was the first losing season of my career. That’s something I don’t want to go through again. Stats don’t matter. What matters is that won-loss column.”
Like Moore, Murray will be working with some new receivers. His favorite target, A.J. Green, headed off to the riches of the NFL, leaving behind a unit that will likely rely on more of a committee approach.
Richt is confident that Tavarres King, Marlon Brown, Michael Bennett, Rantavious Wooten and maybe a few more guys will be able to fill the large shoes left by Green.
“We’ve got enough guys to go out there, roll ‘em around, let ‘em all play and see who makes the most plays,” the coach said. “We feel pretty good about our skill positions.”
Besides, Georgia is counting on getting a lot more production out of its running game, even though the top two backs from a year ago both left the program. That’s because of heralded freshman Isaiah Crowell, who might start the opener and will certainly get plenty of playing time.
He’s already being touted as potentially one of the best backs in Georgia history, pretty heady company with alums such as Herschel Walker, Garrison Hearst, Terrell Davis and Knowshon Moreno.
“When you come to Georgia as a running back, to a place that’s been tagged running back university, you definitely want to be considered one of the great ones,” Murray said. “I just told him to relax and have fun. He has all the ability in the world. If he just goes out there and plays his game, he’ll be fine.”
Boise State has gotten used to playing — and winning — these type of games. Last season, the Broncos opened with a thrilling win over Virginia Tech in Landover, Md., staring down a largely Hokie crowd. They’ll have to do the same at the Georgia Dome, which figures to be packed with more than 60,000 Bulldogs fans.
“This is absolutely not a neutral-site game,” Petersen said. “Everybody is aware of that.”