One of the eternal questions of every college football preseason is, ‘Is (fill in the blank) back?’, and in many recent years in the SEC, the fill-in-the-blank team has been Georgia.
The Bulldogs seemingly are always on the horizon, always about to return to the glory days of Herschel (Walker) and Vince (Dooley), and that talk usually starts here at the SEC’s annual media days. The Bulldogs haven’t won the SEC since 2005 and haven’t played in the conference championship game since 2012. Last year, they finished 8-5, but here they are again, expected to be picked to win their division.
“Our players expect to win, and we don't want players who don't expect to win,” second-year head coach Kirby Smart said. “When you come to the University of Georgia, that’s the (goal) that sits out in front of you. You’re going to be one of the best players in the country, coming from one of the best states in the country, one of the best high school football states in the country. We expect them to come in with that attitude and demeanor. You create that, and it permeates your program by how you carry yourself and perform on the field. And we have not performed on the field from the level we should.”
There are reasons to believe that could change this year. Georgia got an offseason boost when running backs Nick Chubb and Sony Michel and linebackers Davin Bellamy and Lorenzo Carter announced they would return for their senior seasons.
“A lot of these guys know what we have in store,” said linebacker Roquan Smith, the team’s leading tackler last year. “This is going to be a great year for Georgia. That’s basically why a lot of guys came back. They are trying to help Georgia build something special and bring Georgia back up where it belongs.”
The Bulldogs also have a promising quarterback returning in sophomore Jacob Eason and another mega recruit behind him in Jake Fromm. The preseason predictions of the more than 1,000 media members assembled here will be released Friday, and Georgia likely will be the top pick of what could be a muddled Eastern Division. Smith believes that confidence is well placed because of “the vibe and how everyone is feeling in the locker room and just the atmosphere that has been around the program and how guys are working.
“I haven’t seen that since I’ve been here and I just feel like this is going to be a special year,” he said.
For Michel, returning for one more season was just as much about erasing the negative as it was establishing a new direction for the Bulldogs.
“We don’t want to leave that legacy behind of losing to Tennessee, Florida and Georgia Tech all in the same season,” he said. “The expectations are high, to take it game by game, obviously to win them, hopefully to win the East and get to Atlanta. Our ultimate goal is to get to Atlanta.”
The coaching staff’s expectations are much clearer for the players in year two, Smart said. That being said, he doesn’t expect an easy road.
“I think last year, going into the last two weeks of the SEC race, Kentucky is in the race,” Smart said. “And when you have that, you’ve got almost an NFC East or AFC East effect of these NFL conferences where one loss doesn’t put you out. You know the team that won the East the last couple years, you can have two, maybe three losses because there's an even race there across the board. I think that's good and healthy for the conference.”
From the lens of July, it looks like the health of the Bulldogs is pretty strong too. We’ll see how the view is in December.