If you believe the media members who rank college football teams in preseason polls, two Georgia squads will be looking at conference championships come December.
A third could be headed to its conference championship game on the strength of a new quarterback.
At long last, college football is back.
The Georgia Bulldogs begin the year Saturday with lofty expectations. Last season, they finished literally five yards short of going to the national championship game. Preseason polls already project they will win the Southeastern Conference’s Eastern Division.
“Georgia can live up to that hype, led by quarterback Aaron Murray,” said Frank Sulkowski, sports director for WJCL-TV and WTGS-TV in Savannah.
“We’re going to know a lot in the first month of the season,” he said. “They have a tall task in the first couple of weeks with [games against] Clemson, South Carolina and LSU. One loss isn’t going to hurt them. They lose a couple...Georgia will more than likely have a tough road to get back to Atlanta.”
Sulkowski said the key to surviving that gauntlet will be the performance of a young defense.
“You lost a lot of guys to the NFL last year. You have to look to guys like Damian Swann and Garrison Smith to lead a young group,” he said.
“I don’t think too many teams are going to be able to stop the Georgia offense,” Sulkowski said. “But when you get down to the defense, they have to be about to stop the teams they’re going to face in the SEC.”
The ‘Dogs cross-state rivals have other challenges facing them this season. The Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets struggled at the end of last season, finishing 6-6 and losing in the Atlantic Coast Conference Championship. But they rebounded and beat a depleted University of Southern California team in the Sun Bowl.
“[Head coach] Paul Johnson has a team this year and a schedule, the way it lines up, that he should be able to get back to nine wins, possibly dancing around that 10-win total,” Sulkowski said.
Sophomore quarterback Vad Lee will be a big part of that, he said. Lee takes over the starting job after Tevin Washington graduated.
“He can throw the ball,” Sulkowski said. “A little bit different than some of the [past] quarterbacks, Vad Lee gives you a threat to go downfield. That’s going to be needed, because Georgia Tech’s problem has been if they get down, they struggle being able to come back and get back into the game.”
The Jackets also have a new coordinator on the sidelines trying to rejuvenate defensive efforts. Ted Roof returns to Georgia Tech after stints with the 2010 national-champion Auburn Tigers and most recently Penn State.
“At Penn State, his defenses ranked second in the conference,” Sulkowski said. “They gave up just under 20 points a game and they led the conference in sacks with over 30. If he can bring those kind of things to Atlanta, that will give Georgia Tech a solid defense, which is something they’ve been lacking.”
Georgia Southern’s Eagles are the other squad in Georgia picked in preseason polls to win their conference this year. It won’t mean much, though: they can’t compete in the postseason this year as they prepare for the transition from the Football Championship Subdivision in NCAA football to the top-tier Football Bowl Subdivision.
The Eagles have dominated the Southern Conference and Sulkowski said they also should have success after their move up.
“It’s not like they’re moving into one of the power conferences where, going in...they’re going to be bottom feeders. “They’ll compete in year one.”
Georgia Southern moves into the Sun Belt Conference with some familiar opponents, including Appalachian State, Georgia State and Arkansas State.
“I know they can compete with Appalachian State. They do it every year [in the Southern Conference],” Sulkowski said. “You take a team like Georgia State in Atlanta who has struggled since being a 1-AA program, you’re good there.... Georgia Southern’s beaten Arkansas State for a national title several years ago.
“There may be a slight drop as far as wins and losses go, but I don’t think it will be long.”