ATHENS — Here’s what was new for 2008 on Saturday in Athens: Uga VII, a refurbished chapel bell, a fresh crop of coeds in black dresses and pledges in red pants, and a couple of freshmen football players that looked pretty good, too.
Here’s what wasn’t new: Georgia still has the most complete team in the country. That’s been the case for about nine months now.
Even with a No. 1 ranking, it seems like national favor for the 2008 Bulldogs has been waning, probably due to overexposure from the groundswell of hype surrounding this team since last December.
And within the fanbase, the exuberance of April had almost been worn to a nub by anticipation and the angst of staring down one of the nation’s toughest schedules.
Not to mention the suspensions and injuries.
Already without starting left tackle Trinton Sturdivant for the duration of the season, you could almost hear the collective “gulp” when starting defensive tackle Jeff Owens left the game in the first quarter with a knee injury. But as if to illustrate the point that coach Mark Richt has recruited this roster to a plug-and-play level of depth, two snaps later, Owens’ replacement, Corey Irvin, smacked Georgia Southern quarterback Lee Chapple as he released a pass, forcing an incompletion.
The Bulldogs were close, but not quite as dominant Saturday as fans and Richt would’ve preferred. Early in the second quarter, they were just a Georgia Southern missed field goal and goalline meltdown from being tied at 10. There were too many procedural penalties on offense and too many overeager offsides calls on defense.
But a ho-hum blowout against a far lesser opponent doesn’t diminish the talent on the Georgia roster.
Quarterback Matt Stafford still has the same rifle for an arm he’s had since he arrived on campus in 2006. But since then, he’s grown into a very good quarterback before our eyes, and is poised for huge junior season; Knowshon Moreno is who we thought he was; the talent in this receiving corps could surpass any in the Richt era; and there’s All-America potential at every level of the defense.
Saturday’s wasn’t a flawless performance, but it was enough to demonstrate that we weren’t deceived as we watched Georgia close last season on a seven-game winning streak. It was enough to know that the preseason hype wasn’t misplaced.
But beating up on a — mediocre, by all accounts — Division I-AA team won’t be enough to comfort the glass-half-empty fans or sway the unbelieving critics.
It wasn’t enough to make the Bulldogs happy, either.
“About a B,” Stafford replied when asked to grade his team’s performance. “I missed a lot of guys, and we’ve got a lot to work on.”
Keep in mind that’s coming from a guy who threw for a career-high 275 yards Saturday.
Or get sophomore center Chris Davis’s assessment of the 24-point win: “It’s nothing to be happy about. It’s just something to build on.”
The Bulldogs can start by minimizing the silly penalties, missing fewer tackles and proving themselves against a higher-caliber opponent. But even doing so won’t guarantee anything.
Though Georgia is as deep and talented as any team in the country, the SEC won’t be a breeze. It’s not that kind of league, and the Bulldogs aren’t that much better than Florida or Tennesse or Auburn or LSU.
It’s going to be a long, hard 14 weeks, no matter how good the team or how successful the season.
That’s the price of playing in the country’s best conference.
And that’s something else that isn’t new in 2008.