ATHENS — Pressure is indeed a privilege, as Georgia coach Kirby Smart likes to say. But it’s still pressure.
That means it still has to be dealt with. And the Bulldogs are going to encounter a lot of it this season.
That’s why this, for me, is developing into one of the most intriguing Georgia football seasons I’ve covered in a while. Maybe ever.
The expectations for the Bulldogs are sky high. Highest I’ve seen, quite frankly.
UGA AS PRESEASON TOP 10
Year — Pre./Final (record)
1967 — 6th/NR (7-4)
1982 — 7th/4th (11-1)
2000 — 10/20th (8-4)
2002 — 8th/3rd (13-1)
2004 — 3rd/7th (10-2)
2008 — 1st/13th (10-3)
2012 — 6th/5th (12-2)
2013 — 5th/NR (8-5)
2015 — 9th/NR (10-3)
NR = Not Ranked
I wasn’t around to chronicle the early 1980s, but I’m sure Georgia was probably dealing with the most pressure it ever has. The Bulldogs won the national championship and went undefeated behind a freshman tailback named Herschel Walker, as everybody knows. So the expectation, certainly among the fan base at least, was Georgia should repeat.
And they almost did. Skipping all the details, the Bulldogs came up just short. They did manage to repeat as SEC champions in 1981 and ’82, which represented an incredible run. But you can still talk today to a lot of people who remain embittered that Georgia didn’t take care of business those last two seasons it had the greatest tailback in the history of the game.
Interesting to me, though, Georgia wasn’t receiving then the type of preseason hype the 2018 team is now. Even as defending national championships, the 1981 Bulldogs didn’t command a lot of respect from preseason pollsters. AP had them ranked 10th; they’d finish 6th. And they finished No. 4 in ’82 after opening the season at 7.
The Walker went pro, and the great expectations for Georgia went with him.
I don’t know how many people realize this, but the type of national recognition Georgia is getting this season is not status quo. In fact, the Bulldogs would not come into a season with a Top 10 ranking again until 2000. Coach Jim Donnan’s last team finished 8-4 and ranked 20th.
No, it has been a long while since Georgia experienced the kind of expectations it is this year. The Bulldogs are No. 4 in this year’s preseason ranking. By now, most UGA fans can probably cite the poll data that has been bandied about since then: That’s the highest ranking since 2008, when the Bulldogs opened No. 1. They also were tabbed No. 3 in 2004.
You’ll note that Georgia came up short of those expectations both of those years. That is not to say they weren’t good teams. They were. The ’08 Bulldogs finished 13th after a 10-3 season, and the ’04 squad finished 7th at 10-2.
I’d have to say, that 2004 squad reminds me the most of the 2018 Bulldogs, the third team under coach Kirby Smart. Coach Mark Richt’s fourth team was loaded, to say the least. It had offensive linemen and tight ends who’d play in the NFL, two great quarterbacks in David Greene and D.J. Shockley, great skill players in receivers Reggie Brown and Fred Gibson and tailbacks Thomas Brown and Danny Ware. And, man, what a defense, led by All-Americans David Pollack and Thomas Davis.
Still, they finished 10-2 and didn’t win the SEC. They spit the bit against Tennessee in Athens and lost big to one of Auburn’s all-time best teams on The Plains.
Which is not at all to say I expect a similar fate for the latest version of the Bulldogs. Hardly.
Count me among those heaping the expectations upon the 2018. As hard as it is for me to fathom still, I picked Georgia to go undefeated in the regular season (I haven’t prognosticated beyond that).
The fact of the matter is, when you go down Georgia’s schedule and then go down its roster, it becomes quite evident that there isn’t any team on the ledger that will be able to match the Bulldogs in talent. Auburn comes the closest, but then the Tigers are coming to Athens, where they’ve been awful under Gus Malzahn.
So, Georgia shouldn’t lose, at least not until they get to the SEC Championship Game. And that’s some incredible pressure right there. Ask anybody who tries to be perfect.
To be clear, I don’t think the Bulldogs are feeling any pressure right now. Not in the slightest. At this moment, all the Bulldogs are feeling is an incredible amount of confidence. And well they should.
It’s easy to look up and down Georgia’s sideline and count out the 21 5-star recruits, to note the tremendous difference in size and athleticism than what we’ve become accustomed to seeing dressed in those familiar red and black uniforms. Smart and his staff showed us last season how good they are at development and preparation.
No, the pressure will come when the SEC games begin and the Bulldogs realize they’re getting the absolute best shot from every opponent. Sooner or later, they’ll encounter one that’s clearly playing over its head. That’s when the pressure will come, when they find themselves trailing somebody late in the fourth quarter and the reality hits that if they don’t get it done — right then, right there, on that drive — all that’s expected of them will come crashing down.
That’s why Smart is drilling his new-found favorite phrase — “pressure is a privilege” — into the Bulldogs’ heads right now. It’s so that will be what will be playing in the players’ minds when that moment comes. And Smart knows it will come.
What has always separated the truly great teams is that profound, interpersonal belief that you really are going to win no matter what the circumstances. I think the Bulldogs had that inner belief down the stretch last year.
But then they lost it, if but for just a short time in the second half of the national championship game. Doubt crept in, Alabama’s confidence took over and then the outcome went from firmly in their control into the fickle hands of fate.
This is the best collection of talent I’ve seen assembled in Athens in a long time. Maybe ever. They’re easily a year ahead of schedule in becoming what they are at the moment, which is a runaway favorite to win the East and return to the College Football Playoffs.
Anything short of the that this season, though, will be a disappointment.
That’s a privilege, for sure. But the pressure to make it happen s real.