Originally created 07/18/04

Georgia is popular preseason pick for national championship run



ATHENS, Ga. -- If the college football predictions hitting newsstands this summer are on target, Georgia could finish a bigger drill this fall.

The Bulldogs are a popular top-five pick in preseason forecasts in magazines and on the Internet. The Sporting News is picking Georgia as No. 1. Dennis Dodd also put the Bulldogs at the top of his CBS Sportsline.com post-spring poll. Athlon Sports has Georgia at No. 3; College Football News.com has the Bulldogs at No. 5.

"I like the people across the nation saying good things about us," Coach Mark Richt said. "I like them believing Georgia is one of the best teams in the country. That's what we want to be."

In 2002, Richt took Georgia to its first Southeastern Conference championship since 1982. The mantra "Finish the Drill" helped inspire the Bulldogs to end the drought.

Now comes the effort to win Georgia's first national championship since 1980.

As the top-five projections come in, more people are looking at Georgia as a serious national title contender - even if some players think it's too early for such talk.

"It feels good that we're in the top five in the country, but it's how you finish," said Georgia offensive lineman Max Jean-Gilles. "All that just makes you feel good, but that's about it."

Jean-Gilles, a junior, says he would rather Georgia sneak up on opponents than be the team to beat.

"I like being underdogs instead of number one, really," he said. "I like to come into a game knowing that nobody respects us. The other way around, everybody has a bull's-eye on us and will bring their A game to us."

The Associated Press will release its preseason poll Aug. 14. Georgia has never made the top five of the AP's preseason poll. Even after winning the 1980 national championship, Georgia was ranked only No. 10 in the 1981 preseason poll, followed by a No. 7 ranking before the 1982 season. The Bulldogs' highest preseason ranking by the AP was No. 6 in 1967.

The widespread belief Georgia could play for a national championship this year is based on its combined 24 wins the last two years, its 19 returning starters from last year's 11-win team, and its core of veteran all-star candidates, including quarterback David Greene, defensive end David Pollack and receiver Fred Gibson.

The Bulldogs' offense is led by Greene, experienced receivers in Gibson and Reggie Brown, and at least four returning starters on the line.

Brian VanGorder's defense may be the team's strength. The 2003 squad gave up the third-fewest points and fourth-fewest total yards per game in the nation.

This year's defense is led by Pollack, linebacker Odell Thurman and free safety Thomas Davis. Each is rated among the nation's best players at his respective position.

Those strengths don't necessarily add up to a national championship.

Among the reasons to question Georgia's championship credentials:

- The offensive line gave up 47 sacks last season, the most in the SEC.

- For the first time since 1972, Georgia did not have a back rush for 100 yards in a game last season.

- A replacement must be found for kicker Billy Bennett, who left Georgia as the NCAA's career leader in field goals and the SEC's all-time scorer.

- Georgia's depth has taken a few hits. Starting linebacker Tony Taylor is out for the season with a knee injury he suffered in the spring game. Most recently, backup defensive end Marcus Jackson was lost for the year when doctors found a blood clot in his brain. Also, starting offensive guard Bartley Miller may be held out with shoulder problems.

- Georgia's schedule, ranked by The Sporting News as the nation's second-toughest, could include as many as eight bowl teams. Back-to-back October tests against 2003 co-national champion Louisiana State and Tennessee will be revealing, but both are in Athens. The showdown of the season is the Oct. 30 game against Florida in Jacksonville.

The Florida game should be enough to keep Georgia's players humble and its fans wary of too much title talk. Georgia has lost to Florida six straight years and 13 of 14 years.

Thanks to the Gators, Richt hasn't heard too many national championship predictions from fans as he has made his summer tour of booster clubs.

Instead, said Richt, the popular question is "'Hey Coach, when are you gonna beat Florida?"'