Originally created 08/20/04

Georgia must be careful with its national title dreams

Two neck surgeries had his head pinned to a pillow last summer, but Tommy Tuberville's ears were working just fine.

And they were filled - in July, mind you - with people telling him just how good his Auburn team was going to be.

It was no different than any other year, really, except the chatter was more exuberant, louder.

Tuberville was informed that the first consensus national title since the 1950s was on its way to the Plains.

He was told that Carnell "Cadillac" Williams was going to morph into a Bo Jackson incarnate and win the Heisman Trophy.

He heard his players were on more magazine covers than Britney Spears, Paris Hilton and Hilary Duff combined.

Hype had found Auburn, Ala.

"A lot of people had big heads," Tigers safety Junior Rosegreen said.

"Everybody was talking, calling their boys saying, 'Hey, we're No. 1.' "

One problem: the season.

Auburn, which started the year ranked sixth, opened at home with Southern California, the eventual co-national champion.

The Tigers failed to score a point or put up a fight in a 23-0 loss at Jordan-Hare.

It took two more quarters the next week at Georgia Tech for Auburn to score its first points of the season.

True freshman John Vaughn's 22-yard field goal with 33 seconds remaining until halftime was the Tigers' only points in a 17-3 loss to the Yellow Jackets that had the team 0-2 out of the chute.

"I knew we'd be judged very quickly," Tuberville said. "Clearly, we were overrated."

Auburn did rally to win seven regular-season games - including Alabama - and the Music City Bowl.

By year's end Tuberville had to wade through a nasty episode with the school's president and athletic director to even keep his job.

They didn't keep theirs.

All this, and the Tigers wore rose-colored glasses in the preseason.

"We thought we couldn't be beat," Rosegreen said. "We thought wrong."

ANYBODY PAYING ATTENTION in Athens, another college hamlet that's been invaded by the publicity bug?

Georgia has been picked in the top five by virtually every publication in America.

The Sporting News, CBS Sportsline and a handful of others think the Bulldogs will win their first national championship since 1980.

Georgia will start the season fourth in the coaches' poll, and third in the Associated Press poll.

It's the highest start ever for the Bulldogs in the Associated Press' rankings. Their previous high was sixth in 1967.

Even after it won its only national title, Georgia started the 1981 season 10th. It began seventh in 1982.

"I could sit here and say I don't like it, but I do like people saying good things about the program," Bulldogs coach Mark Richt said. "Now, do I think the rankings mean we're going to finish in the top 5? No, I don't believe that, but we've been working hard at producing a premier program."

Many people in and around the program don't share Richt's worldview of the lofty rankings.

He said that's mostly a byproduct of former coach and athletic director Vince Dooley's disdain for expectations.

Richt's perception of preseason back-patting stems primarily from his time at Florida State under Bobby Bowden.

"Most people at Georgia, they hate it because, I think, Coach Dooley hated it. They're like, 'Oh, we don't like it,' " Richt said. "At Florida State it became commonplace, and that's probably the reason I think the way I think."

AS GOOD AS the feeling is about the recognition, the hope is that it doesn't make the Bulldogs so warm and fuzzy about themselves that they can't function between the hash marks.

Quarterback David Greene and defensive end David Pollack said they'll be working hard in the preseason and during the year to make sure egos are checked at the door.

They said the team is already cognizant that expectations have little to no bearing on tangible results.

"I honestly don't think a lot about it. Nothing has been done yet," said Greene, who is Richt's first four-year starter at quarterback.

"I think it does fire up the team. We had our best summer workout since I have been at Georgia. Every day we work out everyone shows up, and they are ready to get after it. They aren't just going through the motions."

Richt echoed his senior leader, saying there's an added layer of responsibility that goes along with added expectations.

"That's my message to the coaches and the team and myself," Richt said. "You've got to back it up. You've got to work."

Even so, this is where Richt wanted to direct the program when he took over in 2001.

"That's our expectation. That's our goal, to be considered one of the best programs in the United States," he said. "When people are talking about us, that makes us feel good about what we're doing."

ABOUT THIS TIME last year, Auburn's song had nearly the same tune.

"Last year we looked at it as a situation that people were starting to recognize our program as getting better," Tuberville said. "I knew it was going to be tough, but for the first time in the five years I'd been at Auburn, people recognized we had a football program."

Therein lies the catch, according to Williams. You made it where you wanted to make it, only to find ramped-up competition intent on ruining your season.

"It is strange," he said. "You want to be ranked that high; it's an honor to be ranked that high. But once you've got that bull's-eye on your back, it's hard to maintain."

It's a bizarre process to begin with, Tuberville said, figuring out which is the best team in the country before a single down has been played.

Too much emphasis is often placed, he said, on the number of returning starters and how a team did last season.

In Georgia's case, it is difficult to ignore or gloss over the fact the Bulldogs have won 24 games in the past two years - or that 19 starters return from last year's team that went 11-3.

"I mean, no one really knows how good each team is," Tuberville said. "Us coaches, we're still trying to figure it out during the weeks of practice leading up to the season.

"How's anybody else supposed to know?"

IT'S A POINT well taken.

About half of the time, preseason prognosticators - even the pollsters - are shocked by the eventual national champion.

You don't have to go back too far in history to realize that the adjective "unlikely" follows around a good number of recent champs.

  • Louisiana State started last season 14th en route to a share of the national title.
  • Very few thought the Tigers were the best team in the Southeastern Conference's Western Division, much less the entire country.

    Saban's team beat Georgia twice, including once for the conference title, and Oklahoma in the Sugar Bowl to win the ADT trophy.

    Incidentally, the Bayou Bengals were picked fourth in the SEC West by this newspaper.

  • Ohio State began the year 13th when, carried by the legs of freshman Maurice Clarett, it upset Miami in the Fiesta Bowl to win the 2002 national championship.
  • Tennessee went into the 1998 season 12th in the country, nearly lost its opener at Syracuse and lateragainst Arkansas, but they wsa able to get into the national championship game. Tennessee beat Florida State in the Fiesta Bowl to claim its first national title since the '50s.
  • Even Georgia has done this before, starting the 1980 season ranked 16th before winning the national title.
  • "It's all about the mentality of the team that's developed in the off-season," Tuberville said.

    So it seems like Auburn's got the right idea in where it will begin the 2004 season - somewhere between 15 and 20.

    "Oh, I'd much rather be here than there," Tuberville said. "Makes my neck feel a little better."

    Reach Travis Haney at (706) 823-3219 or travis.haney@augustachronicle.com.


    Georgia's No. 3 ranking in the 2004 preseason Associated Press poll is its highest since winning the 1980 national championship. A look at where the Bulldogs started and finished each season since then, according to the AP:


    WHO'S number one?

    Teams ranked No. 1 in the preseason Associated Press football poll, and where they finished the season:
    2004Southern Cal???
    1999Florida St.1
    1998Ohio St.2
    1997Penn St.16
    1995Florida St.4
    1993Florida St.1
    1991Florida St.4
    1988Florida St.3
    1980Ohio St.15
    1979Southern Cal2
    1973Southern Cal8
    1971Notre Dame13
    1970Ohio St.5
    1969Ohio St.41968Purdue10
    1967Notre Dame5
    1963Southern CalNR
    1962Ohio St.NR
    1958Ohio St.
    1954Notre Dame
    1953Notre Dame
    1952Michigan St.-x
    1950Notre Dame
    x-won national championship

    Source: Adam R. Smith


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