Georgia Bulldogs fans approach the coming season with certain expectations or goals for their favorite college football program — benchmarks, if you will, by which they will judge whether it’s been a successful campaign.
For some fans, the bar is set fairly low: just improving on 2016’s 8-5 record would mark a successful season for these folks, who have an eye to the future. Others are more impatient, and say the benchmark that would make the 2017 season a success is winning the SEC East, the first stepping-stone to even greater possible achievements.
Georgia winning the division this coming season is a goal that seems attainable in the eyes of quite a few college football media observers, who already are pegging Kirby Smart’s second UGA team as the SEC East favorite.
This rosy view is predicated mainly on the basis of Nick Chubb and Sony Michel’s unexpected return, the presumed second-year improvement of talented quarterback Jacob Eason, the Dawgs returning all but one starter on defense, the predicted bonanza recruiting class Georgia is expected to sign this year, a fairly favorable schedule, and the fact that both Tennessee and Florida will lose some key players.
Of course, the media folks touting Georgia as the likely beast of the East frequently have been wrong in the past: Witness last year’s anointment of the Tennessee Vols as the overwhelming division favorite in preseason predictions.
And, Smart still has to clear major obstacles from Georgia’s path to glory, including rebuilding an offensive line that was experienced but pretty terrible, replacing the departed Isaiah McKenzie among an underperforming receiving corps, and improving a pretty wretched red-zone defense.
If the line can’t block and the receivers can’t get open, there are definite limits to what Chubb, Michel and Eason can do, as we saw during much of the 2016 season. The prospect of a top 5 incoming recruiting class has a lot of folks very excited — and justifiably so — but it’s sobering to consider that Smart and his staff likely will have to depend on a bunch of green true freshmen to play from the get-go if Georgia is to contend in the East.
However, there are fans for whom winning the East is not job No.1. Their primary goal for the season is simple: Beat Florida.
The game in Jacksonville against the Gators has come to define a season for many in Bulldog Nation (ask Mark Richt about that), and, for some fans, the prospect of Florida boosting its winning streak over the Dawgs to four in a row is too awful to contemplate.
Of course, beating Florida also is a key step in winning the SEC East. And, most fans would prefer to achieve both goals. But, as we’ve seen in seasons past, it’s not essential to winning the division. The Dawgs can stumble in Jacksonville and still take the East.
Which one matters more? I put that question to a number of Dawgs fans this week: If you had to choose, which would you rather have in 2017, UGA winning the SEC East or beating Florida?
Better than three-quarters of the fans I polled said they’d pick an Eastern division title over beating the Gators, chiefly because it puts the Dawgs in position to contend for the SEC title and the College Football Playoff.
Among those who put greater importance on the game in Jacksonville, my buddy Scott was pretty typical in saying he did so simply because “I’m so tired of losing to Florida,” adding: “Gotta learn to walk before you can run.”
On the other hand, for another fan, Mike, the annual clash with the Gators has lost some of its luster. “Honestly,” he said, “we have lost to Florida so much that I am used to it. (That sounds awful, but it’s true.)”
Mike asked my view on the question and I replied that I’m torn. On the one hand, my natural inclination is to say winning the East, always the East, whether the Dawgs are victorious in Jacksonville or not. On the other hand, I’d really hate to see the Gators’ string reach four. Remember how awful that rivalry felt during the years immediately preceding Georgia taking three in a row during the Aaron Murray era?
But, Mike returned to the central point: Winning the East means you get to play in the SEC title game, and, if you win that, have a shot at the national championship. “Florida is just the one game, and, if you lose to Auburn the next week, then you don’t even enjoy beating Florida.”
Good points. I think, if I must choose between the two, I’d come down in favor of taking the East over beating the Gators.
Losing to Florida four years in a row would hurt big-time, but as Owen, another lifelong fan from Athens, noted: “Having them win one in a row hurts! But it’s possible to win the national championship with one loss and getting to the SEC championship game is a prerequisite. If we lose to UF but win the East, it means the rest of our SEC record has to be pretty good. So I’d go with losing to UF while getting to Atlanta.”
Plus, as Mike put it: “It’s embarrassing to see other schools play in the Dome year after year … and not us.”
Still, winning the East is no guarantee of anything more than the chance to get stomped by Alabama, and then you have to hope that you still can get into a New Year’s Six bowl game. And, if you’ve also lost to Florida along the way, well, how special does a season like that feel?
Like I said, I’m torn. How about you?
(If there’s something you want to discuss, or you have a question, email me at firstname.lastname@example.org, or connect with me on Facebook or via Twitter. And don’t forget to check out past entries of the Junkyard Blawg.)