Many (but not all) Dawgs fans are ready to believe this season

The return of quarterback JT Daniels is a major reason that many consider Georgia a national championship contender this season. (Curtis Compton/AJC)
Curtis Comp

I wasn’t particularly surprised that the AJC’s Mark Bradley named the Dawgs as his pick for this year’s national championship winner in his annual pigskin picks.

And, of course, I can see what’s behind such predictions from him and others. Certainly, the Dawgs’ schedule sets up nicely after the “game of the year” opener against mighty Clemson in Charlotte. There’s also some great returning talent, bolstered by strong offseason additions.

I’m still a little concerned about the rebuilt secondary and offensive line, but there’s some impressive, if unproven, talent there, too.

Head coach Kirby Smart has assembled an impressive array of talent in Athens. (Vasha Hunt/Abell Images/Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl)
Vasha Hunt, Dawgnation

So, why is it I’m a bit afraid to buy in completely when it comes to this idea that Kirby Smart’s finally going to bring a national title back to Athens this season?

Well, for one thing, the postseason could be considerably tougher than the regular season, with the Dawgs possibly having to face Bama twice (SEC Championship Game and playoff) and maybe Clemson again in the playoff.

But, more than that, many of us Dawgs fans have a built-in something-will-go-wrong feeling, based on too many seasons where injuries or suspensions or dumb coaching decisions derailed a team on its way to No. 1.

Sometimes, we overcome it. With the Dawgs holding a 10-point lead over Bama as the fourth quarter began in January, 2018, I found myself actually believing. I didn’t say it out loud, but I thought, “We’re going to win the national championship tonight!”

We all know how that turned out. As I wrote the morning after that game, “Georgia’s storybook 2017 season ended in a way that was all too painfully familiar for Dawgs fans — another heartbreaking last-second loss to Alabama. Maybe that’s why, as my son and I trudged out of Mercedes-Benz Stadium on Monday night after the game and rode MARTA out of downtown Atlanta, what I saw on my fellow fans’ faces was a sort of drained resignation.”

I’m sure that’s not just a Georgia thing, but I do hear it an awful lot from Dawgs fans: They’ve been burnt so many times, they’re afraid to believe.

Georgia fans have been told many times that this will be the year, only to be left disappointed at season's end. (Getty Images)
Todd Kirkland, Dawgnation

In fact, Georgia fans’ trepidations have become such a meme in college football that the “SEC Shorts” comedy series devoted an episode to “How Georgia Fans Deal With Hope,” in which a Dawgs fan keeps fending off a pretty girl wearing a “Hope” banner, because of all the disappointments he’s faced in past.

And, so, after reading Bradley’s prediction, I put out this plea to Georgia fans: “If you’re not among the pessimists, if you really believe this could be the year, please tell me why I should think that, too.”

Jeff Dantzler, one of the hosts on the Georgia Bulldogs radio network, understands where I’m coming from. Describing himself as “a son of Munson and Dooley, like so many of us, a natural pessimist, but always hopeful,” he said he thinks “we are going to have a special year in the midst of a golden era of Georgia football under Kirby’s watch.” However, he noted: “Everyone is so obsessed” with a national title, which “used to not be the case. The pressure is heavy.”

Mike Sinquefield summed up how quite a few fans feel: “I want to believe, and I do believe it could happen, but I don’t know that I’m fully vested beyond Clemson yet.”

Hank Harden also spoke for many, saying, “As a lifelong UGA fan and alum, I will believe it when I see it.”

And, Rob Peel made me smile with an amusing twist on William Butler Yeats’ famous quote about being Irish, saying, “Being a Georgia Bulldog fan, he had an abiding sense of tragedy, which sustained him through temporary periods of joy.”

Fans are excited that five-star tight end recruit Arik Gilbert has transferred to Georgia this season, after playing at LSU last year. (Jason Getz/AJC)
Jason Getz, Dawgnation

Tony Tyson thinks part of the problem is that many Georgia fans also follow the Braves and Falcons. “The Braves won 14 straight division titles, but only one World Series against a Cleveland Indians team with a bigger hex on them than Atlanta. ... And the Falcons’ 25-point collapse at the hands of [Tom] Brady is burned into our psyche, which can only be comparable to the Dawgs’ two losses to Bama after leading both at halftime.”

Still, he said, “do I believe that the Dawgs’ defense can pressure the QB enough to help the secondary, and can [Todd] Monken and [Matt] Luke game plan and scheme to utilize the abundance of talent available to minimize any O-line short coming? Damn straight!”

Likewise, my brother Tim predicts the Dawgs will go 15-0 because they have the “best QB and good backups, best D-line and LBs, which will make the DBs better, best tight ends, best RBs. Great young receivers. Young line, but very talented and 2 and 3 deep. Very potent offensive scheme!”

Danny Overstreet noted that he’s been saying “this could be our year” for at least a couple of decades, “yet, this year feels different, in that our perceived weaknesses have been fortified very well. … We have almost consensus top 5 individual units and our ‘weak’ link, our secondary, has been shored up and should be actually a top 10 unit [by] midseason, if not before.”

Running back Zamir “Zeus” White is another reason for Dawgs fans’ optimism this season. (Curtis Compton/AJC)
Curtis Compton, Dawgnation

Ashley Espie said she’s “a huge optimist about this season! Like you, I’m a little worried about the secondary and offensive line. However, I think our D-line will be good enough this year that corners won’t have to worry about covering receivers for 5-plus seconds like last year, so there’s more room for them to make mistakes. Also, besides Clemson, the schedule does line up favorably for them to gain that experience. As for the offense, I think it will play a huge role in our success this year. As long as the O-line improves from last year, the rest of the pieces are in place — from quarterback and running backs to extremely talented wide receivers and tight ends. There’s so much talent around the quarterback position that JT Daniels’ job should hopefully be pretty easy this year. There’s always doubt niggling at the back of my mind, because we have come so close so many times, but I think this just might be the year, with Kirby’s most complete team yet.”

After a hard-fought win over Clemson, Alan Howard sees “smooth sailing” until the SEC Championship Game. Then, he said, “I believe we finally get over the Bama hump to advance to the College Football Playoff. Bama is like the shark that loses teeth only to have the next row of All-SEC players step up. But this year, the Dawgs have the explosive weapons on offense that Bama and LSU used to beat us the last two years.” He sees Georgia ending the 40-year drought.

“The team is certainly talented, well coached, and hungry,” Ricky Harper conceded. “Yes, this could be the year.”

But, he cautioned, “all it takes is one wrong bounce of the ball or poor decision by a coach, or key injury to run the whole year into the wall. I will be feverishly rooting … for the Dawgs to go all the way, but I will never count on it.”

Alan Cason, who runs the Dawg Bites page on Facebook, thinks that, besides the fact that Georgia hasn’t won a natty in 40 years, Dawgs fans have trouble believing because of “the constant ribbing from all our neighbors who have won it since we did, many of them multiple times.”

Still, he said, “I feel better about this year.”

Why? “Because I’m old and full of hope!” he replied.

Tom Skinner said he’s ignoring the preseason hype. “Fans lap it up, but as a lifelong Dawg fan I decided long ago to quit buying in — it’s rat poison: Win a natty or bust.”

Scott Peacocke falls “into the something-will-go-wrong camp, primarily because I’m nervous about keeping JT Daniels injury-free. I think our season could fall apart if he goes down — though I don’t mean finishing 6-6 or anything like that. But let’s be real: for us, a 2-loss season would be semi-catastrophic, given the favorable schedule and our talent.”

Big Jordan Davis leads a veteran defensive front that will be considered one of the Dawgs’ strengths in 2021. (Curtis Compton/AJC)
Curtis Compton, Dawgnation

Steve Banks believes “we are built to make a title run, but the Georgia Sports Curse loves to rip my heart out ...”

Dan Pelletier is “cautiously optimistic. While I am hopeful we can beat the Almost a College Conference (ACC) champ in our first game, looking at the remainder of the schedule, I see us in the SEC championship game. Whether undefeated, or with one loss, if we are SEC champs, we are in the playoff.”

The superb talent Smart has assembled is what makes Christopher Crummey believe. “The addition of Tykee Smith, Derion Kendrick and Arik Gilbert gives us the most complete roster in memory, and the schedule is manageable. Gilbert softened the blow of losing [George] Pickens, arguably the team’s best player.”

Brad Fanning agrees. “I honestly believe the stars are lining up! The schedule is optimal, the O is showing signs of explosiveness, the D are bulls, with great experienced leadership! The key will be to pursue, pursue, pursue and never back off! If we do that, I don’t see how we could be beat!”

At the other end of the fan spectrum, Kevin Whaley said he’s “a skeptic, not a full-blown pessimist. Until I see the offensive line manhandle good opponents, I’ll continue to doubt we can run the table and win the biggest games. … The inability to push people around consistently, and run it when we want to run it, makes it harder for the pass protection to hold up. Finding a dominant left tackle is a concern.

“My other fear is an injury to a quarterback who is not very mobile,” he continued. “If we had to go to [Carson] Beck or [Brock] Vandagriff, I think we could still win against much of our competition, but not the ones it would take to win a title.”

Jim McLaughlin, who still has “nightmares about 2nd and 26 in overtime,” said that, despite a team that “is loaded with tremendously talented players, a very good coaching staff, a favorable schedule (after that extremely tough opener), and an unbelievably enthusiastic fan base,” he’s concerned about the offensive line. “They just didn’t look good in the bowl game. Left tackle scares me to death. We all know that protecting the quarterback’s blindside is an absolute necessity.”

“All the pieces are certainly in place for the Dawgs to win the whole thing,” countered Richard Lee Bohannon. “Now, it’s up to the coaches to have the team prepared each week and the players to execute the plays as designed.”

He added that he hopes Smart gives offensive coordinator Monken complete control of the play-calling “and doesn’t back off in the third or fourth quarter.”

Is this the year that the College Football Playoff national championship trophy finally comes to Athens? (AJC file)
AJC file, Dawgnation

Of course, I also received a lot of replies from fans who think Georgia will win a national title simply because the Dawgs are overdue.

“It’s our year for sure,” Gary Strickland said. “You can’t be denied 41 years in a row without eventually the ball bouncing your way!”

A twist on that line of reasoning argues that Smart’s elite recruiting shortens the odds that Georgia should win another national title soon. As Stephen Forest Jones put it: “I just feel like this is our year. We’ve got arguably the best quarterback in the SEC, if not the nation. That’s huge, and Kirby hasn’t had that luxury before. We should have a top 5 defense, as well. I like our chances.”

However, several fans noted that you don’t win national championships without a few lucky breaks, unless you’re Alabama.

“The stars do seem to be aligned for a good run,” Jim Sandifer said, but “it will require excellent execution and a good bit of good fortune. If you will recall, good fortune was present in 1980.”

Dave McCoy agreed, saying every national champion “has to have a good bit of luck … calls … a crazy play like Auburn’s kick-6 … that juggled ball against us.”

Taking a more laid-back view, Neal Aspinwall said that, “as I get older, I have stressed less about the results and enjoy the ride. There were many years when [Vince] Dooley or [Ray] Goff or [Jim] Donnan had zero chance at a natty, but we still looked forward to the season.” He also credits Smart with the fact that Dawgs fans can even dream about a title consistently now.

As for my buddy Joel Provano, he’s not sold on Georgia winning it all this year, “because the road to the national championship still goes through Alabama, and we haven’t been able to clear that hurdle,” but he does think “Kirby has done a terrific job of addressing our needs in the offseason.”

Overall, Joel said, he feels like another JP, the optimistic little boy in the Disney baseball movie “Angels in the Outfield,” who is remembered primarily for this recurring line:

“It could happen.”

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