ATHENS, Ga. — College football season openers are all about an eager anticipation to see if favorite teams can live up memories of past glory — and also live up to an offseason of hype.
For Georgia, the offseason build-up is renewed every summer, but the memories of championship glory are growing old.
Since Georgia won its last Southeastern Conference championship in 1982, there have been three 10-win seasons, four nine-win seasons, 8-4 finishes each of the last three years and 15 bowl appearances. That's enough success to keep Sanford Stadium packed, but it's not enough glory to keep a coach in the post-Vince Dooley era on the job longer than seven years. Mark Richt, the third coach to follow Dooley, is entering his second season.
Tonight's nationally televised season opener against Clemson will find Sanford Stadium filled with more than the normal doses of nostalgia and impatient anticipation.
Clemson's first visit to Athens since 1994 renews a rivalry which once had much to do with settling national championships, not just bragging rights for northeast Georgia and southern South Carolina.
The 2002 season beckons the 20-year anniversary of that last SEC title.
Because Georgia enters the season ranked No. 8 in the nation by The Associated Press — the team's highest preseason spot since 1982 — there is more than the usual amount of season-opening chatter about the possibility that this could be the year Georgia ends its championship drought.
Said quarterback David Greene of the drought: "It makes you want it that much more, knowing it hasn't been done in so long. What a great feeling it will be to bring it back to Georgia. It's another incentive.''
Still, the sobering reminder even in that AP poll is that two other SEC East
teams — Tennessee and Florida — are ranked above the Bulldogs. There is reason for some to suspect the No. 8 ranking is based more on hype than on fact. After all, Georgia finished its modest 8-4 2001 season with a 20-16 loss to Boston College in the humble Music City Bowl.
From that 8-4 team Georgia lost three-fourths of its secondary, its top pass-rusher, Charles Grant, star tight end Randy McMichael and its top running back, Verron Haynes.
The optimism is based on the return of Greene, an offensive line stacked with five senior starters, one of the top receiving corps in the nation, the return to good health of tailback Musa Smith and a pair of senior leaders on defense — linebackers Boss Bailey and Tony Gilbert.
The optimism also is based on a highly regarded freshman class that will be represented by starting nose tackle Kedric Golston, followed by many more in backup roles. As many as eight freshmen may play tonight, and the count should grow to as many as 12 later in the season.
The Sanford Stadium sellout crowd of 86,520 and the ESPN prime-time TV audience will see the debut of Georgia's new two-quarterback system. Sharing time with Greene will be redshirt freshman D.J. Shockley, whose ability to scramble will give the offense a new look.
Shockley has been promised playing time in the first half, but even the quarterbacks were not told exactly how the rotation was to work until Friday night.
Greene has the advantage of a deep corps of receivers led by sophomore Fred Gibson, senior Terrence Edwards and junior Damien Gary.
"The margin of error playing Georgia at Georgia is a pretty big challenge, said fourth-year Clemson coach Tommy Bowden. "Defensively, I think we can find our barometer right off the bat.''
An advantage for Clemson is that its defense now is directed by former Auburn defensive coordinator John Lovett. At Auburn, Lovett schemed winning game plans against Georgia the last two years.
The bad news for Georgia is that Clemson also boasts a deep corps of receivers, and that strength will match up well for the Tigers against the Bulldogs' biggest concern — three new starters in the secondary, including two new safeties.
Questions about the secondary were reflected by at least three changes in the starting safeties the last two weeks. On Tuesday, Georgia listed free safety Kentrell Curry and rover Sean Jones as the starters, but later in the week secondary coach Willie Martinez said redshirt freshman Thomas Davis will start at free safety, pushing Curry to rover.
Clemson, 7-5 last season, will be led by junior quarterback Willie Simmons, who will be making his first start but saw consistent playing time behind former starter Woodrow Dantzler. Simmons can run but is more of a pure drop-back quarterback than was Dantzler.
Charles Odum is the beat writer for Dawg Post in Athens. He has over 20 years of experience covering Georgia football. He can be reached here: CEOdum@aol.com
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