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Why I Want the Georgia Bulldogs to be the Preseason Consensus No. 1 Team

Earlier today, Quinton McDawg took a long look at the Bulldogs' 2008 football schedule and came away cautiously confident, cognizant of the many potential pitfalls and the need for favorable bounces in a year in which the Georgia slate "goes from its normal difficulty to absurd."

In offering this sensible assessment, Quinton commented on "the familiar sine wave of buzz, consensus, backlash, and backlash to the backlash" . . . all of which attests, more than anything else, to the fact that it's a long offseason for passionate aficionados of college football. For evidence of the backlash, one need look no farther than the observation by a believer in the Red and Black's national championship pedigree that "the thought of them winning it all makes me want to vomit, eat some more, and then vomit again." (In case you're curious, I asked about that level of disdain and received a courteous explanation.)

Just ten days prior to Quinton's most recent posting, Doug Gillett had this to say about the "backlash" phase in the wake of the Gators' highly-hyped spring scrimmage:

I'm more than happy to let some other team carry the burden of preseason hype. And as much as we Bulldogs bitch and moan about never getting any love from ESPN or the rest of the mainstream media, most of us would be happy to fly under the radar (as much as that's possible for any team that's already snagged #1 rankings in a couple people's early-early preseason 2008 rankings) while the more robustly hyped teams above us get picked off. Particularly if one of them is Florida.

Perhaps more so than in any other conference, the hype and grueling level of competition in the SEC have created a situation in recent years where at least one team each season collapses miserably after being touted to the ends of the earth. . . .

The Tennessee '05 example is particularly useful here because, if Darren Epps's book is accurate, that massive preseason hype was in large part responsible for a level of distraction and an overall lack of discipline -- on the part of both the payers and their coaches -- that led the Vols to their bowl-less doom. We see that kind of attitude -- the "look-ahead" -- cause problems in individual games all the time, but as that Tennessee team demonstrated, teams occasionally will apply the look-ahead to an antire season. With the results, of course, being all the more disastrous.

Certainly the expectations surrounding the Dawgs in 2008 are going to be at least that high. And I certainly think Georgia's got the kind of talent and coaching that deserve top-five (if not top-three, or top-one) preseason rankings. But I'd much rather have that kind of ranking in the postseason. So if someone besides Georgia gets tagged with that burden this summer, if someone else gets put at risk for a Tennessee-style look-ahead, I'm perfectly happy to step aside and make way for them -- even if it means a few more months of having to roll my eyes and make the jerk-off gesture through additional stories of Tebow's Christlike greatness.

My ideal situation for 2008 -- and if you're smart, Bulldog Nation, it'll be yours too -- is for ESPN's Gator hype to take hold to the point where Florida ends up as #1 or #2 in the preseason polls while the Dawgs get "bumped down" (relatively speaking) to #4 or #5. That way Georgia's still high enough to be in position for an MNC shot if they take care of their own business, but the heaviest hype burden is borne by someone else, and the Dawgs get the added motivation of "disrespect" -- however minor -- to carry a chip on their collective shoulder into the Florida game, and possibly several others.

So that's my advice, Dawgs. Don't complain about the Gator hype this summer; embrace it. As much fun as it might be to be sitting on top of the heap on August 30, it'd be a million times better to hold that spot on January 9. Sure, it's early, but it's never too early to know which of those is better; let's just hope our players are aware of the same.

This is an understandable and familiar sentiment. When I was invited to defend Georgia's national championship prospects on EDSBS Live (where I stated my case as persuasively as I could . . . although, as NCT noted, my confidence, while strong, is tempered by realism about the factors beyond anyone's control), Kanu echoed Doug's warning, offering the following plea for reasonableness:
Please, please, please: let's focus on winning the SEC Championship, which is both tangible and objective. The MNC is a wacky, extremely subjective, nebulous thing that if it happens, great, but we don't have much control over it as has been shown over and over and over- let's focus on the tangible and objective goal which we have direct control over, and that is simply trying to win the SEC. Anything beyond that is both a crapshoot and gravy, and as CFB fans we need to start being realistic and recognizing it as such, instead of getting to the MNC every year and expecting . . . a fair and rational outcome. Win the tangible part, and then when it comes to the MNC, if the plinko chip falls into the $25,000 slot then yay!, and if it doesn't then oh well- we have about as much control over appearing in the MNC as we would climbing the stairs and dropping Plinko discs.

While I'm right there with Kanu on that one, I would like to offer a word in furtherance of what Quinton characterized as the "backlash to the backlash." As I hope is clear by now, I'm not a chest-thumping message-board type; I completely agree with Kanu that winning the Southeastern Conference championship is the most important thing, from which all other good things flow, and I understand that Doug makes a reasonable point that it oftentimes is better to fly under the radar a bit.

That isn't always so, though. Had Southern California and Texas been but two of several undefeateds in 2005---had, say, Alabama and Virginia Tech run the table, as well---the sense that a showdown between the Longhorns and the Trojans in the Rose Bowl was foreordained would have given the favorites the edge. In principle, I understand why Doug is "perfectly happy to step aside and make way for" another team that "gets put at risk for a Tennessee-style look-ahead" because "the heaviest hype burden is borne by someone else" . . . but what if that someone else bears that burden and runs that risk successfully?

Doug is worried that the 2008 Bulldogs could be "suckerpunched the moment they actually took the field" like overhyped Auburn in 2003, and that risk undoubtedly is real, but do we really want the luxury of languishing in the relative obscurity of lowered expectations if it means taking the chance of turning out like underappreciated Auburn in 2004?

After having spent the summer rebutting Stewart Mandel's asinine observations about my alma mater's national stature, I am disinclined to inch the bar incrementally down. We have one of the best coaches in the conference . . . heck, in the country. In fact, Mark Richt is the best coach in Georgia history. Ours is among the premiere athletics programs in the Southeastern Conference; at the moment, Florida and Louisiana State are Georgia's only gridiron peers in the league.

While I do not advocate arrogance, which inevitably will come back to haunt you and which is not consistent with Coach Richt's personality in any case, I believe we should begin accepting---indeed, embracing---raised expectations at Georgia. I wrote once that this program appeared on the verge of becoming Southern Cal with a Southern accent. I stand by that position today.

Yes, I understand that luck and injuries play a crucial role. Anyone who says he knows now which team will win the national championship is wrong, even if his prediction is borne out in the end. To go back to the 2005 example, everyone's expectation that Texas and U.S.C. would meet in Pasadena proved to be correct, but, if Reggie Bush and Vince Young had turned in merely extraordinary, instead of absolutely phenomenal, performances against Fresno State and Oklahoma State, respectively, history would have written a different tale. There is no way of predicting when Nat Hudson will nudge an onrushing Florida defender out of the way long enough to allow Buck Belue to hit Lindsay Scott for a 93-yard touchdown pass.

Historically, false humility has been the norm for a program whose two winningest coaches so far have been James Wallace Butts and Vincent Joseph Dooley, two first-ballot inductees into the Lou Holtz Memorial Poor-Mouthing Hall of Fame. Once again, I do not defend trash-talking or taunting, but surely we should not shrink from expressing faith enough in our team to want outsiders to laud it with what we regard as deserved praise.

This tendency, I fear, is symptomatic of the same undercurrent of underconfidence which still leaves many devoted denizens of Bulldog Nation fearful that Coach Richt one day might leave, despite all evidence to the contrary. Deep down, such fretting is rooted not in doubts about our coach, who has given us no reason for doubt, but in deep-seated uncertainties ingrained in us as a people by two decades of wandering in the wilderness after Herschel Walker became a New Jersey General.

Any such crisis of confidence is as unseemly as it is unfounded. As my brother-in-law, Travis Rice (himself an inveterate fretter over all things football), said on the floor of Phi Kappa Hall in a debate a little over a decade ago, "We're at the top of the food chain, people. Cope!" It's one thing to lack faith in the substance of things hoped for and the evidence of things not seen (although you shouldn't do that, either), but believing in that for which you have a basis for belief is just common sense . . . yet, all too often, Bulldog Nation adopts an attitude diametrically opposed to that of Rod Stewart: still we look to find a reason to disbelieve.

Tomorrow night, Suzanne Yoculan's Gym Dogs will begin the N.C.A.A. tournament in which they hope---no, intend---to claim their fourth straight national title. Coach Yoculan didn't build the top women's gymnastics program in the country by preaching (or even tolerating) self-doubt. Does Pete Carroll urge his Trojans to adopt diminished expectations? Does Urban Meyer or Les Miles? Does Nick Saban or Steve Spurrier?

Competitors at the highest level do not shrink from outsized expectations; they revel in them. As Coach Richt's brother-in-law and team chaplain says of the man who has built a perennial contender in the Classic City, "You don't become the head coach at the University of Georgia if you're not competitive. Don't take meekness for weakness. Don't take humility for passivity or good sportsmanship for not being competitive. And please don't take not cheating or not selling out for football as not being competitive or crossing all your T's and dotting all your I's for not being competitive." Do you remember how the blackout game against Auburn felt? Do you remember how the Sugar Bowl felt? Why are we scared to feel that way about our team all the time?

I understand where Doug and Kanu are coming from, and their counsel not to get overly caught up in the hype is prudent and wise. We must be careful, however, not to greet top-five rankings and national title talk with trembling and trepidation. I am less worried about confronting the distractions occasioned by expectations than I am about creating inadvertently an atmosphere of fear which could cause the team to wither beneath the spotlight from which too many fans are inclined to flinch.

I alluded to this recently, but it bears repeating that, in the "West Wing" episode "The Red Mass," the White House staff spends much of the action of the show looking for ways to reduce expectations for the president, who has a reputation for being a skilled debater, as he prepares to appear on the same stage with his opponent, who has no such reputation.

Ultimately, this effort proves futile and the press secretary, C.J. Cregg, proposes a bold stratagem. When her colleagues greet this prospect nervously and worriedly, C.J. states the matter forthrightly: "When you can't lower expectations, you only have one thing you can do. You have to meet them."

C.J.'s message is one we all need to heed. Adopting the attitude that your team is a better bet to win the national championship if it starts out ranked fifth or sixth instead of first or second is like taking the position that you have a better chance of getting a date with a pretty girl if you stand around waiting for other guys to strike out with her than if you walk up to her and strike up a conversation. Wallflowers who hope to fly under the radar go home alone, leaving other guys to get the girl . . . and the crystal football.

Heading into the autumn, I believe every man in Bulldog Nation ought to grow a beard, but, at a minimum, all of us in the fan base need to grow a pair. Speaking at the Sorbonne 98 years ago this very day, Theodore Roosevelt had this to say:

It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, and comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows the great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who know neither victory nor defeat.

As fans, of course, we are, at best, at the periphery of the arena; as bloggers, we very distinctly are the critics who do not count. It is the players and coaches, those within the hedges, who are actually in the arena, striving, perhaps coming short, but spending themselves in a worthy cause at which, at worst, they may fail while daring greatly.

The desire to be a champion does not begin with lying low; that, however well-meaning the advocates of such a course may be, is the path of cold and timid souls. If, in the end, you wish to know the triumph of high achievement, you must not be ashamed of your aspiration to that lofty goal.

We should not wish to see our team downgraded and ignored so that it may rise to fill the vacuum when others fall; we should hope---nay, demand---to see our team given the credit we believe it deserves and to have it focused from the outset on its admitted objective.

We should neither wish nor expect to sneak up on a national championship by dancing around it. If you want to be No. 1, you have to want to be No. 1 . . . in January, in August, in April, every day, every game, all the time.

You can either run with high expectations or you can stay on the porch. Let the Big Dog eat.

Go 'Dawgs!