Georgia football fans weren't happy nine months ago today, when the Bulldogs wrapped up their 1996 season.
Five wins, six losses. No bowl game. Losses to Southern Mississippi, Ole Miss - even Kentucky. Oh, and that 47-7 disaster in Jacksonville.
But no matter how disappointed Georgia's boosters have been, they've got nothing on Georgia coach Jim Donnan. Make no mistake, he expects much better things from his second Bulldog team, which kicks off its season against Arkansas State today at 1 p.m. at Sanford Stadium.
"My expectations are high for this team, as far as playing up to our potential," he said. "I'm not talking about record, I`m talking about the way we move, the way we play, the way we operate, penalties, all that stuff. I have very high expectations for a disciplined football team.
"Mine were high last year, but I feel like we're, realistically, better capable of handling them because of what we've been through together, i.e. offseason program, working out, meetings, psychological profiles, talking to them one-on-one - all those things take time. I feel there's a real bond, a real trust between our players and me that you can't just accomplish without having it be a two-way street."
To a man, Georgia's players now say they're completely comfortable with Donnan, his system and the staff. And turnabout will be fair play today. Arkansas State head coach Joe Hollis will be making his debut with the Indians this afternoon. That means the Indians, who finished 4-7 a year ago, will be in a situation similar to the one Georgia faced in what became an 11-7 loss to Southern Miss last year.
Georgia linebacker Orantes Grant said he thinks Arkansas State's inexperience will be a key to today's game, but not the deciding factor.
"I do think so," he said. "But I think a bigger advantage we'll have is going to be our depth - it's gonna be a hot one out there, and we're going to be rotating a lot. Whoever has the most depth is going to have a better chance."
Depth is a decided advantage for the Bulldogs. Arkansas State has 81 players on its roster, but only 39 of that group have lettered at Arkansas State who have played for the Indians haven't had much success. Arkansas State allowed an average of 41.6 points against Division I-A opponents last year, including a 58-9 loss to Brigham Young in the season opener.
Arkansas State is considered one of the weakest teams in Division I-A. The Indians' own media notes point out that Arkansas State was ranked no higher than 106th among the 112 I-A schools in preseason polls. Perhaps this is why Georgia is listed as a 34-point favorite going into today's game. Of course, Georgia was also favored in a couple of games it ended up losing last year, and Donnan's aim is to keep the Bulldogs focused on the task at hand, not running up the score.
"We've talked about, when you're favored in the game, that you be careful not to get caught up in trying to destroy somebody and don't take care of business," Donnan said. "We're not that kind of team yet where we can just go out there and not have total focus. Our preparation's been excellent, we really know what we're doing. We could have one of those games, who knows?"
The bottom line for the Bulldogs today, though, is to avoid a repeat of last year's opening-game debacle. Senior noseguard Travis Stroud said Georgia is well aware of the damage last year's loss to Southern Miss may have caused, and the Bulldogs aren't about to do it again.
"You only get one chance for your first game, and we want it to be a great one," Stroud said. "Our intentions are to prove a point to ourselves and to our fans. We need to use this game to get on the right track.
"If we had won the first game last year, it might have changed the whole season. Morale was really down after that game. That's why we want to go out and play well. We want everybody to say `Georgia football is back."'
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