ATHENS -- The crystal football, commemorating Georgia’s last national championship, sits in the far corner of the school’s athletics facility. It overlooks the football practice fields, so if you stand by it, you can touch the glass as you watch practice.
But it’s also behind a window, so if you’re a player or coach out on that practice field, you have to squint to see it. Out there, at least, the commemoration of greatness is far away.
This season will be the 14th under Mark Richt, who owns a better winning percentage at Georgia than Vince Dooley, who coached Georgia to that national title. Richt’s percentage (73.6) is also better than Wally Butts and Harry Mehre, whose names adorn the facility in which Dooley’s trophy stands.
But Richt has never won a national title, as Dooley and Butts did. Richt has never even been to the title game. There were years Georgia came close -- 2002, 2007 and 2012 -- and might have been included were there a four-team playoff, as there is now.
Richt is usually reserved in his predictions. But for whatever reason, whether it was bravado or motivation, he stuck his neck out and said his team would win the division this season.
“I believe it’ll be Georgia,” Richt said at SEC media days.
The last time Georgia was coming off an 8-5 season in which it replaced its defensive coordinator and had numerous offseason arrests, it ended up going 6-7. And that was with a junior skill-position player considered among the best in the country.
But those around the program don’t see parallels, for reasons schematic and cultural.
That 2010 team marked the breaking point for a program that had accepted too many clubhouse cancers and been too lenient with off-field problems. This year, the rash of dismissals and transfers results from a lower level of tolerance by Richt. He adopted that attitude in reaction to the problems of 2010.
This year’s defensive coaching change is also not a schematic overhaul. Jeremy Pruitt kept Todd Grantham’s 3-4 system, which relies heavily on a 4-2-5 for passing downs. The changes are more subtle, from simplifying the calls to relying on quicker players.
It would also be assumed that Todd Gurley, unlike A.J. Green in 2010, will not be suspended the first four games.
Offensively, Georgia is in the midst of its finest set of seasons. Many of the pieces remain, or are returning from injuries, from teams in 2012 and 2013 that set school records. That includes Gurley, Malcolm Mitchell whenever he is healthy and underrated senior receivers Chris Conley and Michael Bennett.
That’s why Georgia began this season ranked No. 12 in the coaches poll and was picked to finish second in the SEC East, barely behind South Carolina. There is a sense nationally that Georgia is still in the picture.
But which picture? The SEC division race? Or the new four-team College Football Playoff?
The schedule might help this year. Georgia does have to go to South Carolina in its second game, but the Bulldogs get Clemson and Auburn at home. And at least on paper those three constitute Georgia’s toughest three games -- although chances are Florida is much better this season, too.
The main concerns for Georgia this season are well-known:
The secondary, which ranked ninth in the SEC in pass defense, but it seemed worse, symbolized by the well-known blown play at Auburn. Just as symbolically, the two Bulldogs who collided on that play, Tray Matthews and Josh Harvey-Clemons, were dismissed from the program this offseason for off-field problems. Also gone is cornerback Shaq Wiggins, the only player to score a non-offensive touchdown for Georgia last year. But Pruitt thinks he can improve his secondary with a collection of veterans, walk-ons and newcomers. Whether he’s right is the biggest question about this team.
Another big question in quarterback Hutson Mason, who alleviated some concerns by starting the final two games last year, then by putting together a strong spring. Perhaps he can’t help but be good, given the presence of the talent around him.
Then again, what about the offensive line? For the past four years it has been maddeningly inconsistent and this year has to replace three starters. The good news? The offseason upheaval did not touch the offensive line, and the coaching staff seems as optimistic about the group as it has been in five years. If the good feelings prove right, Georgia’s offense should be as good as the past two seasons.
Finally, there are the special teams units. Don’t blame Marshall Morgan. The junior place-kicker is coming off an All-SEC season. It’s everywhere else, where little mistakes turned to game-changing errors. And other than Morgan, the special teams have been no help to Georgia lately. Its return game hasn’t been a factor. The team hopes freshman Isaiah McKenzie can fix that and more subtle coaching changes can fix the errors.
GEORGIA IN 2014
Head coach: Mark Richt (126-45 in 13 seasons at Georgia and overall).
2013 record: 8-5 overall.
Returning starters: 6 on offense; 8 on defense.
Players to watch: Todd Gurley (6-1, 232, Jr., RB), Ramik Wilson (6-2, 232, Sr. ILB), Damian Swann (5-11, 178, Sr., CB), Marshall Morgan (6-3, 200, Jr. PK).
Aug. 30 Clemson, 5:30 p.m.
Sept. 13 at South Carolina, 3:30 p.m.
Sept. 20 Troy, Noon
Sept. 27 Tennessee, TBA
Oct. 4 Vanderbilt, TBA
Oct. 11 at Missouri, TBA
Oct. 18 at Arkansas, TBA
Nov. 1 Florida, 3:30 p.m.
Nov. 8 at Kentucky, TBA
Nov. 15 Auburn, TBA
Nov. 22 Charleston Southern, TBA
Nov. 29 Georgia Tech, TBA