ATHENS — High expectations are nothing new for Georgia football. That’s particularly true for the group of Bulldogs Coach Kirby Smart has for the 2021 season.
That’s why no one in Butts-Mehre Heritage Hall batted an eye when college football analyst Phil Steele projected Georgia as the No. 3 team in this season’s AP Top 25.
The poll won’t be out until August, but neither Smart nor his players are likely to make mention of it.
The Bulldogs have been ranked in the preseason Top 5 the previous three seasons.
Fact is, it has been the highest run of expectations any coach or group of players in Georgia football program history has dealt with (See chart below).
Smart has said more than once that “pressure is a privilege.” But his program is still learning how to handle it and finish the drill.
“I realize the standard of excellence that’s been created here and the expectation,” Smart said on his Tuesday spring football Zoom call. “We never shy away from those expectations but that’s not going to get the end goal.
“The end goal is to have a net sum gain of positives and you’re trying to constantly move people from over here, who might be on the negative side and then on the positive side bring more guys along. As you do that, the end goal is that you get more results- that you’re able to win championships.”
Smart would know, as he was a part of four national championship teams while serving as Nick Saban’s defensive coordinator at Alabama.
The Tide has stood in the way of the Bulldogs reaching their goals.
Smart is 10-6 against Top 10 teams, but three of those losses have been to Saban and Alabama. It’s partly why Georgia has finished the season lower than it was ranked in the preseason the past three seasons and four out of Smart’s five seasons as head coach.
The 2017 Bulldogs, ranked No. 15 in the preseason, went on to finish runner-up to Alabama in the College Football Playoffs. It was a team that benefitted from a strong offseason and elite player leadership.
Smart is looking for the same thing out of the 2021 Georgia players, who outside critics have charged have underachieved in a cumulative sense based on recruiting rankings.
The rankings of the Bulldogs’ recruiting classes has been: 2017 (No. 3), 2018 (No. 1), 2019 (No. 2) and 2020 (No. 1), but the team has missed the College Football Payoff and finished outside the top 3 each of the past three seasons.
There’s virtually no margin for error when expectations are at a championship level.
Dabo Swinney recently explained as much after Clemson fell short of a CFP Championship Game appearance last season.
“When you are at a program where people are disappointed when you don’t win the national championship,” Swinney said last week before the Tigers’ opening spring practice, “that means you are at a special place.”
Indeed, there’s good news and bad news in Georgia not meeting the elite preseason expectations the past three seasons.
It’s tough not to meet goals.
But on the other hand, lofty preseason ranks illustrate how Smart has raised the perception of the program, building Georgia into an annual title contender that churns out NFL players each season.
Georgia is expected to break the program record for most players selected in a draft this season. As many as 10 Bulldogs are expected to be chosen in the 2021 NFL Draft April 29-May 1.
Georgia brings spring drills on March 16 leading up to the annual G-Day Game on April 17.