It was amusing at this past week’s SEC Media Days to see Florida’s continued obsession with Georgia.
In fact, they’re almost as obsessed with UGA as the media members were with stoking the narrative that the Dawgs’ prospects for the season hinge entirely on whether Georgia finally can defeat Nick Saban’s Crimson Tide in a championship game. (Sorry, Gators.)
The focus on Georgia-Alabama did at least make a nice change from the off-season media trope that the Gators under Dan Mullen are now the true up-and-comers in the SEC East.
That’s a meme that I’m not sure even Mullen and his troops in Gainesville really believe. Florida’s second-year head coach spent much of the winter and spring acting a bit insecure, as he continually tried to troll Kirby Smart and Georgia, and his players once again spent much of their time in the SEC media spotlight this week arguing (as they did a year ago) that their most recent loss to the Dawgs really was a lot closer than the 36-17 score would indicate.
Yes, the Florida program almost certainly is improving, but all the hype surrounding them reminds me of last year, when we kept being told in the preseason that Georgia’s real challenger in the East would be South Carolina. In fact, by game time, predicting the likelihood of an upset by the Cocks was a hot media trend.
(And, hey, even the folks in Columbia aren’t that excited about their prospects this year: This past week, Hartman Fund contributors were offered the chance to buy some of the tickets to this year’s game against the Cocks in Athens, which South Carolina had returned unsold. Worse, Will Muschamp’s team has joined the other less desirable opponents on Georgia’s 2019 home schedule — Murray State, Arkansas State, Kentucky and Missouri — in a $395 five-game “mini plan” ticket offering. How embarrassing.)
Anyway, I’m not saying Florida is likely to drop in Georgia’s rivalry ranking as precipitously as the Gamecocks have, but I’m not sold on Mullen as the worker of magic that many media outlets seem to believe he is. I think longtime college football columnist Stewart Mandel hit the nail on the head when he wrote: “I have a new ready-made answer whenever anyone asks the inevitable, ‘Which team is getting too much hype coming into the season?’ Florida, followed by Florida, followed by Florida again.”
As for Bama, despite the overwhelming theme of the SEC media daze being “Georgia has to beat Alabama or their season will be a failure,” the Dawgs’ player representatives did a good job of sidestepping all the questions about focusing on the Tide.
“I want another crack at the SEC, and I want another crack at the national championship,” senior safety J.R. Reed said, but he added that he didn’t care who Georgia’s opponent is.
“Right now, we’re not really focused on them,” Dawgs offensive lineman Andrew Thomas said of Bama. “We’re focused on the opponents we have on the schedule right now. And if we take care of business, if we see them, then we’ll get ready for them.”
As for the past two losses to Bama, “We look at those games where we didn’t get over the hump in the past and we want to do more this summer,” quarterback Jake Fromm said. “It’s taking every game like it’s our last and trying to go 1-0 every week.”
The national media focus was on Smart, who summed up the official Georgia stance on this must-beat-Bama business: “I’ve got a lot of respect for their program, but also I’ve got a lot of respect for ours and where we’ve come. I think we’ve got a really good football team. To be honest, I’m not going to define our season by Alabama. I’m going to define our season by how we play.”
As for Bama, Smart did acknowledge that “we all know they’ve been king of the SEC for a while.” But, he said, “The biggest thing is concerning ourselves with us and not concerning ourselves with someone else.”
That’s classic coachspeak, and keeping the one-game-at-a-time mindset is, of course, what Georgia’s staff will continue to preach to the players this season. It’s a tricky balancing act. They want to use the goal of the College Football Playoff (which probably involves playing Bama at some point) as motivation; yet they can’t let that become the be-all and end-all for Georgia football. Otherwise, you wind up with an all-or-nothing mentality that sees the team fall apart if they don’t achieve that immediate goal. The result can be a lamentable mental no-show like the Sugar Bowl against Texas.
So, Smart’s go-slow philosophy (at least, in public) on fanning the flames of the nascent rivalry with Bama probably is the wisest course.
Still, considering how the past two seasons have ended, with Bama coming back late to take a national championship and then an SEC championship away from Georgia teams that had dominated them earlier in the games, how could Smart’s players not be thinking about and focusing on Bama in their heart of hearts?
For their part, Bama players paid tribute to Georgia (and thumbed their noses at Clemson) by saying at the SEC gathering that the Dawgs were the “toughest” opponent the Tide faced last season. Whether that makes Georgia’s players just want to “do more,” as Smart’s slogan for the season demands, we won’t know until December.
In the meantime, at the end of SEC Media Days, the assembled media reps voted that they do see a rematch of Georgia and Bama in this year’s SEC Championship game, and they think the Tide will prevail again — which is pretty meaningless, considering the SEC media has only picked the eventual conference champion correctly seven times since 1992.
Still, it’s one more indication that Smart’s program won’t be considered on the same level as Alabama until the former Saban assistant has beaten his ex-boss. And Georgia’s players know it.
As one headline in a national outlet put it: “Georgia shouldn’t be defined by Alabama, but it can’t avoid it.”
Even former players feel it. Herschel Walker, appearing at the SEC mediafest, was forthright about what he wants to see: “I want Georgia to win the East, I want Alabama to win the West, I want them to meet up again. I’m not jumping that far ahead; you shouldn’t do that. But, if I’m a Georgia player, that’s what I want. Because you want to run the gauntlet, I want Alabama, because you’ve got to go through Alabama to do it.”
One step at a time
In the wake of head coach Tom Crean putting together what may be Georgia basketball’s best recruiting class ever, the program apparently got a little ahead of itself with recent changes made in required giving levels for donors to the Basketball Enhancement Fund (the roundball equivalent of football’s Hartman Fund).
As a message to UGA donors this week from the Georgia Bulldog Club noted, “BEF information was recently sent out in the mail, and as you may know, some adjustments were made to the BEF giving levels and benefits chart for the 2019-20 season.”
However, the message said, “With the introduction of these adjustments, we have received thoughtful feedback from some of our members. After careful review and consideration, The Georgia Bulldog Club is adjusting the 2019-2020 BEF giving levels and benefits to be phased in over a two-year period instead of one.”
I like that phrase, “thoughtful feedback.”
They also extended the deadline for donations.
As one fan put it: “Yeah, you probably need to win a tournament game for first time since 2002, or beat Georgia State, before raising rates.”
John, Paul, George, Ringo … and Vince?
A few years back, my old AJC colleague Jeff Cochran did a piece for the Like the Dew online magazine, focusing on my two major side gigs at the time: Beatlefan magazine and the Junkyard Blawg. Or, John, Paul, George, Ringo and Vince, as Jeff put it. Now, he’s updated the article for the Atlanta Loop online news site, a sister operation of Decaturish. Click here link to check it out.
Let me hear from you!
I’ll dip into the Junkyard Mail next week, so feel free to share your views on the upcoming season or ask any questions you might want me to answer by emailing me at firstname.lastname@example.org.