ATHENS, Ga. — Georgia opened its preseason camp Thursday with a freshly minted No. 5 ranking and a keen understanding of what’s at stake by month’s end.
The Bulldogs face three top-13 programs in their first four games, starting with No. 8 Clemson and No. 7 South Carolina back-to-back. No. 13 Louisiana State rolls into town for game four on a grueling start.
For a program that came a few yards and seconds from winning the Southeastern Conference championship and playing for the national title a year ago, the pressure picks right up where it left off.
“I love it. I love it,” said star receiver Malcolm Mitchell. “I love games like that. Because you know you’re going to have to give it all you got to win. Those teams work hard to get where they’re at. And they know if they beat us they’ll move up.”
Having to balance that immediate sense of urgency with the reality that it’s a long season is nothing new for Mark Richt as he embarks on his 13th season at the Georgia helm. This is what you sign up for when championships are the only acceptable goal every fall.
“Any year everything is on the line in the first month,” Richt said. “Every single year that first SEC game is a monster. Of course we didn’t play South Carolina in the first SEC game last year, but if you lose that game you have to run the table basically. No matter who that next SEC game is, that’s a monster. Every time you play, the next game you play, if you lost it it’s over. They are all really, really big.”
Perhaps few teams are better equipped to handle that ongoing pressure than these Bulldogs. Two years ago Georgia started 0-2 against ranked foes and had to run the table the next 10 weeks to reach the SEC Championship game. Last year the Bulldogs lost to South Carolina in week six and couldn’t afford any losses in the second half to earn a shot at playing for a BCS berth against Alabama in the SEC title game.
“We know how it feels to be in that situation,” said receiver Chris Conley. “We know how hard it is to bounce back in that situation and we know we don’t want to be there again.”
So jumping directly into the fire with Clemson and South Carolina is just an extension of what Georgia has been facing since last October.
“It’s a great opportunity because as soon as we come out on the field we’re going to have to test our mettle,” Conley said. “We’re going to see what we’re made of and see what Georgia can do.”
The expectations are certainly as high as the challenge that confronts them. Georgia ended last season ranked No. 5 and starts 2013 in the same place in the eyes of the coaches poll released Thursday. With a fully reloaded offense that accumulated numerous school records last season, even bigger things might be in store.
Murray, who gave up sure-fire riches in the NFL draft to stay for his senior season, is excited to return with “a lot of toys to use.”
Despite a career of mixed results in big games, Murray believes he’s more ready to handle the rigorous start than he was two seasons ago when he lost starts to Boise State and South Carolina in the first two weeks.
“More comforting now as a senior,” he admitted. “It would have been shocking to see this schedule then. It’s still a little bit shocking. There’s three teams all ranked in the top 13 right there. It’s gonna be a challenge. But I’m definitely more excited about the challenge.”
The biggest question is whether Georgia’s rebuilt defense can step up after losing seven NFL draft picks from last year’s roster.
“I feel like we’ll be able to thrive this year with some of the talent we’ve got,” said linebacker Jordan Jenkins, who has to fill the shoes of All-American Jarvis Jones.
Jenkins and his new defensive mates believe they’re ready to “shock the world” right out of the gate against Clemson’s vaunted offense.
“I believe people might be overlooking us a little bit, but that’s fine,” said nose tackle Mike Thornton. “It’s just going to make us work harder.”
That was the general theme across the board on the first media day of the season. Georgia has 30 days to be ready to play playoff-caliber football.
“We’ve got to be ready to go, it means we have to work extra hard in camp to make sure we have everything down when it comes to plays and the understanding of concepts, things like that,” Murray said. “It makes the offseason more exciting and it pushes you to make sure you’re in midseason form come that first week.”
To a man, Georgia’s players all welcome the challenge.
“Yeah, you get it out the way,” said all-SEC running back Todd Gurley. “Don’t have to wait for it. And everybody will be healthy at the beginning of the season – not like at the end.”
Now they just have to make sure the right beginning makes the end meaningful.