Longtime Dawg Sports readers doubtless have noted that I periodically cite Cale Conley’s War Between the States, which chronicles the Georgia-Florida rivalry from its inception in 1904. (Yes, Gator fans, 1904, not 1915.) Cale, with whom I went to law school, is working on an update of the book (now that he will be able to give it a happy ending), and that immersion in the glorious past of Bulldog football has him, like the rest of us (only more so), geared up for the 2008 season.
Below are Cale’s initial thoughts on the Red and Black’s newly-minted No. 1 ranking. Further reflections and ruminations of his may, and updates on the second edition of War Between the States will, appear in this space in the future. For now, though, I give the floor to Cale:
BE NOT AFRAID, BULLDOGS:
NUMBER ONE IS A GOOD THING
By Cale Conley
It’s a stat that makes you shake your head: until last week, the Georgia Bulldogs had never been ranked # 1 in any major preseason poll. Not in 1981 as defending national champs, not in 1982 with Herschel back for his Heisman, not ever. Trivia geek alert: the closest the Bulldogs have come was in 1942, when there was no preseason poll but Sinkwich & Trippi’s Dogs were # 2 in the first AP poll of the year.
Since the release of last week’s USA Today Coaches poll putting the Dogs up top, there is of course buzz in the Bulldog Nation, but also a real undercurrent of unease, in fact concern. "It puts too much pressure on us," I’ve heard uttered. "Now we’ve got a target on our back," say others. "Only 2 of the last 10 preseason No. 1’s have won it all," say the aforementioned trivia geeks, who just last year were telling 2007 preseason chart-topper LSU that only 1 of the last 9 teams that started # 1 also finished # 1. LSU, for the uninitiated, is now the defending champion. Score one for the Cajuns.
I’m no Dr. Phil, but I am here to help you cope with being at the preseason pinnacle.
In LSU’s journey of last year lies the explanation why no Bulldog, anywhere, should despair or wish for anything different than the preseason # 1 ranking if, in fact, it is a national title that we want. The reason is simple, but not one many in DawgWorld wish to speak aloud:
Like loaded LSU a year ago, THE 2008 DOGS ARE NOT GOING TO GO UNDEFEATED.
Repeat it with me no matter how much it may pain you, oh sergeant at arms of the Dacula Optimist Club and keeper of the eternal 1980 memorial flame:
THE 2008 DOGS ARE NOT GOING TO GO UNDEFEATED.
If you really think they can, God bless you. I mean really, God bless you. And if they do, at least two things will be clear: (1) it won’t matter what or where we were ranked in the preseason because we had the greatest team since probably Nebraska in 1995 and the talent just took over and we were destined to win it all from the start, like Presbyterians, and (2) my mojo hex of declaring something so vociferously as impossible that it actually comes true has actually worked (and by the way, I am currently Presbyterian, and pray for an undefeated season). But I digress.
The Dogs really won’t go undefeated as bad as we all want to channel 1980 again only because the schedule just won’t let us. Everybody is talking about our "tough schedule" from Lee Corso to the ladies on "The View" (I made that part up), but I haven’t seen any historical research or real data about just how tough it is. For kicks and giggles, I actually did some research, compiled what some may call "data." But first, an observation.
The SEC is loaded top to bottom, but let’s face it, in the modern era, there are six Hall’s (Georgia, Alabama, Auburn, Florida, Tennessee, LSU) and six Oates’ (Ole Miss, Miss State, Kentucky, Vandy and the two teams I’m still not 100% sure are conference members, Arkansas and South Carolina. Could we possibly trade them for Clemson and Texas? Can you imagine? But again I digress.)
Since 1990, only two members of the SEC elite have played and beaten all five of the other members of the conference’s elite in the same year. One was Tennessee, in ’98, which goes down as one of those "Presbyterian-team-of-destiny-wouldn’t-be-denied" kind of things like I was talking about before could happen this year, but won’t (by the way, the Vols’ closest call came at Syracuse, in week one, where they squeaked by 34-33). The other team was Florida, in 1991, in Spurrier’s second year -- before Fulmer and Krispy Kreme kicked in to make Tennessee a power, while pre-Zaxby’s Goff was at our helm, while LSU was suffering from a bad case of Curley Hallman (remember that guy?), and while Pat Dye was still running the power-I at Auburn, just without Bo Jackson or Brent Fullwood. That Gator team swept the then-watered-down other elite and went undefeated in the SEC mainly because Spurrier was offensively about 10 years ahead of his time and had speed before speed was cool, but even that squad did not go undefeated, even in the regular season. Why? Because facing all that other SEC mess, they went on the road, in week three in a hostile out of conference environment (Syracuse), and got bushwhacked pretty badly, 38-21.
Anybody jumping ahead here?
Like the 1991 Gators, the 2008 Dogs face all five of the other elite, including LSU and Auburn on the road. Unlike 1991, all five of those teams are or will be in the top 20 and have actual head coaches. Plus the ’08 Dogs have Spurrier on the road at his new digs in Columbia in a classic trip up game, like every South Carolina meeting, then a flight to the desert to play a ranked out of conference team (Arizona State) in, you guessed it, week three, a la Syracuse and the Gators in 1991 and sorta-kinda-like Tennessee in ‘98. There are no Mississippis, no Arkansas, and even Kentucky and Vandy have improved and can no longer be overlooked. And then there’s a season ending meeting with a Tech team with a new gimmick offense, likely nothing else to lose at that point, and the law of averages on its side (Georgia has never beaten Tech 8 straight times, and the current win streak is at seven. Get out your slide rule! Yikes!).
But wait, there’s more. Go through that gulag and the SEC Championship awaits, where even if we beat them all the first time we’d have to re-defeat either LSU, Auburn or Alabama in Atlanta to take the title, the apparent prerequisite to a national title shot.
Not to be Debbie Downer, but doesn’t that put a little more meat on the "tough schedule" bone and give you some reason why I resorted to all CAPITAL LETTERS just a few paragraphs ago to proclaim that even the calming influence of Mark Richt and a bevy of talent cannot guide us home unscathed?
Who will we lose to, you ask? I’m bold, but not that bold. I personally think Arizona State, Auburn and of course Florida -- and maybe two of those three -- rank highest on the list of upset suspects, but that’s as far as I’ll go. Hell, it could be Central Michigan, the two-time defending MAC champs, for all I know, and at least that would not be a conference loss.
Rather than speculate, what I’d rather do is get to my point. If you accept my somewhat-historically annotated premise that an undefeated season is probably out of reach despite all best efforts and absent real destiny, then what we are really playing for at this point is "track position" (to borrow a NASCAR phrase) when the inevitable stumble occurs. The rule of track position is get to the front of the pack and into clean air, so that later, when you need to get back into the race after a problem, you have far fewer backs to climb over and some energy left to do it. Fortunately, we find ourselves on the poll from the start (yes, that was a pun. Involving NASCAR. Perhaps a first.).
Does anybody believe that if LSU starts lower than # 1 a year ago that they weather two losses down the stretch and still make it to the title game for the annual SEC whitewash of Overrated, excuse me, Ohio State and a national championship? Surely not. They had to start at the top to end at the top, and like purple is the new black, we are the new LSU.
So, from my view, pragmatically, realistically, historically, there is no better position for the Dogs than number 1 preseason at this point in time in the college football universe, if for no reason than it gives us more room to fall softly when a loss occurs. And if we do somehow go undefeated a la Tennessee in ‘98, no one will unseat us anyway, so it’s all good. In highly technical terms, that’s called a "win-win." So do not fret about targets or pressure or 10-year statistical compilations. Instead, take a gander at the big picture, the ring on smirking Les Miles’ hand, imagine all the high school recruits looking at the cover of SI as they ponder their college choice, and be thankful we are where we are at the start. It may be the key to a happy ending.
Feel better about being number one? At least I do.
I agree . . . and I’m dang glad we’re not playing Syracuse! Cale Conley is a University of Georgia graduate and the author of War Between the States: The History of the Georgia-Florida Football Rivalry, originally released in 1992. He is currently working on an update of that book to be released in time for Christmas 2008, so put it on your holiday wish list. When not obsessing about college football, Cale is a lawyer in Atlanta. If you want to pre-order a signed copy of War Between the States (2nd Edition) now, leave a comment to that effect below and we will provide you with the means by which to contact Cale.