Hopefully, the following questions I asked Kyle will give the Gator fans a preiview on what to expect from the Georgia Bulldog sidelines on the upcoming Football season. Similarly, Kyle asked me some questions of my own in regard to Florida Gator Football.
SWAMP BALL: QB D.J. Shockley showed a lot of commitment towards the Georgia program by waiting patiently for his chance, and finally got to shine last season. How is the battle to replace Shockley gone so far this Spring? Is there a front runner?
DAWG SPORTS: It seems pretty clear that Joe Tereshinski III will start against Western Kentucky. It seems equally clear that he will not start against Colorado.
Matthew Stafford is getting all of the hype right now and, although he may live up to his billing, I believe much of the praise heaped upon him at the moment is attributable to his novelty. Blake Barnes generated a similar buzz before his first G-Day game, as well.
If you had to declare a frontrunner right now, you'd have to say it's Stafford. Stafford was everybody's all-American coming out of high school and he is the clear favorite among the fan base. I don't rule out Barnes, though. While he has seen no meaningful playing time in live game action, the former Gatorade Mississippi Player of the Year has completed 10 of 13 pass attempts in two G-Day game appearances. If he puts on a show between the hedges on April 8, he'll remind some folks why he was so heavily hyped coming out of high school, too.
SWAMP BALL: Georgia was given pretty high grades in its recent recruiting class. Which players out of this class seems most likely to have significant contributions this Fall?
DAWG SPORTS: Generally, I defer to Paul Westerdawg at the Georgia Sports Blog on such questions, since he covers recruiting much more closely than I do. However, Paul has done his part to educate me in such matters, so I give him the credit . . . and, of course, assign him the blame if anything I say turns out to be wrong.
The departure of Leonard Pope left some big shoes to fill . . . both literally and figuratively. While there is no shortage of tight ends on the Georgia roster, the addition of Na Derris Ward may keep the 'Dawgs from slipping too far in the absence of the Papal Bull. Justin "Bean" Anderson could see significant playing time at offensive tackle and Tony Wilson could be a receiver who complements Mohamed Massaquoi by providing another big play threat.
Defensively, I look for Ricardo Crawford to contribute at defensive tackle and Darius Dewberry to make an impact at linebacker. It might not be a bad idea to keep an eye on Reshad Jones at safety, either.
SWAMP BALL: Georgia has certainly changed its course since the Ray Goff and Jim Donnan regimes, can we expect Richt to be in Athens for the long haul? Or do you think is he going to someday be found on the sidelines in Tallahassee when Bobby Bowden retires?
DAWG SPORTS: I understand why this question gets asked and it is perfectly reasonable for folks to ask it. That said, I must confess that I find this question---which I get often---absolutely maddening.
Mark Richt has always said that he and his wife either wanted to move once or not at all; their goal was to stay in Tallahassee, so he could succeed Bobby Bowden, or to take a head coaching job somewhere else and stay there. It was an "or," not an "and," and the Richts made their choice.
Coach Richt certainly has behaved like he meant what he said in this regard. He turned down overtures from other schools, including what appears to have been an outright offer from Virginia, yet he actively pursued the Georgia job, asking both Bobby Bowden and Grant Teaff to intercede with Vince Dooley when he learned there was a vacancy in Athens. His initial contract made no special exceptions for Florida State or Miami to hire him away, the way Urban Meyer's contract at Utah made a special exception for Notre Dame.
Following the Bulldogs' 2002 S.E.C. championship but before the Sugar Bowl showdown with the Seminoles, Coach Richt renegotiated his contract. The deal was done quickly, without the sort of eyebrow-raising delays that preceded Dennis Franchione's defection from Alabama, and Coach Richt's new contract had both the longest term and the largest buyout of any contract in University of Georgia history.
When Coach Richt left Florida State, he remained in Tallahassee an extra few days to say goodbye to his church, lending credence to the notion that he was bidding farewell to a chapter of his life that was closing. By all accounts, Coach Richt, his wife, and their children love Athens. He has been true to his word in every other way, which ought to lead everyone to believe that he is not lying when he says he is staying. By the way, Coach Richt recently signed another post-S.E.C. championship contract extension, once again without delays or evasions.
Moreover, I have seen this movie before and I know how it ends. A rising young coach makes his mark as a coordinator at a Sunshine State school, enabling that institution to win a national title. A traditional powerhouse program fallen on hard times hires him to revive its fading football fortunes, which he does, winning a championship in just his second season. Then the legendary longtime head coach of the school where he made his bones retires and the opportunity is presented for him to succeed his mentor at the helm.
At first, the offer is enticing. Upon further review, though, he realizes that his loyalty was not to the school (which, after all, he did not attend), but to the head coach who is stepping down. It dawns on him that he already has one of the best jobs in coaching and that he will be more likely to compete for conference and national titles in his present post than he would be if he accepted the impossible challenge of replacing a school's greatest coach. He goes to his athletic director, arranges for his own deal to be sweetened, and graciously bows out of the running, preferring to remain where he is.
That rising young coordinator turned successful head coach was named Bob Stoops and, when Steve Spurrier stepped down, he told Jeremy Foley to go to the next name on his list. Mark Richt will make the same choice for the same reasons, particularly in light of the fact that the F.S.U. program Bobby Bowden hands off to his successor is apt to be a shadow of its former self. There can be little doubt that, right now, the Bulldogs' long-term prospects look a good deal brighter than the Seminoles'.
Besides, being the head football coach at the University of Georgia is no one's steppingstone job. Since Harry Mehre left Athens and went to Oxford after the 1937 season, no Red and Black coach has jilted Georgia to go coach somewhere else. Vince Dooley considered the Auburn job in 1980 . . . and he decided to stay. Jim Donnan considered the North Carolina job in 1997 . . . and he decided to stay. Mark Richt will consider the Florida State job when it comes open, but he will reach the same conclusion.
Mark Mark's words: Coach Richt will retire as the winningest coach in University of Georgia football history and his gold watch will be presented to him in Athens, not in Tallahassee or Coral Gables. Count on it.
SWAMP BALL: How would you describe the outlook for the Bulldogs this season? Is it in rebuild or reload mode?
DAWG SPORTS: At a minimum, I'm much less nervous about 2006 than I was about 2005. Prior to last season, one commentator made the very good point that he wasn't sure who went 42-10. Was it Mark Richt? Was it David Greene? Was it David Pollack? Was it Brian VanGorder? If it was anyone other than Coach Richt, the 'Dawgs were destined to take a step back. Fortunately, that proved not to be the case, a fact that bolsters my faith in his ability to get the most out of any team.
My major concern is that the Red and Black lost not just talent and leadership, but also numbers. While the stability of the coaching staff is a definite plus, there are a lot of holes to fill and there is a marked lack of experience, if not ability, among the players left in Athens. If Georgia started out against the sort of September slate faced by the likes of Kansas State or Texas Tech, this team might have time to find its sea legs before diving into the deep end. The schedule does not afford the 'Dawgs such a luxury, however.
I am optimistic that Georgia is in reload mode because rebuilding doesn't seem to be something Mark Richt-coached teams have had to do, whether during his tenure as an offensive coordinator in Tallahassee or during his time as a head coach in the Classic City. A fifth straight season with double-digit wins and a fourth division title in a five-year span might be a bit beyond the Bulldogs' grasp this season, however.
Given the depth of the S.E.C., which ought to be back up to its fighting weight as a league next fall, I'd be mildly surprised to see the Red and Black do better than nine wins and a Peach Bowl berth, but, after watching Georgia win a conference title in its last "rebuilding" year, I'm cautiously hopeful that another quality campaign is upcoming. If the 'Dawgs get to 10 wins and represent the East in the Dome again in 2006, I'll be ready to start talking some serious trash. Until that happens, though, I'm laying low, keeping my fingers crossed, and answering all questions with a polite smile and a "We'll see. . . ."
SWAMP BALL: Do you think Spurrier's South Carolina team will throw a wrench into the aspirations of fellow SEC teams Georgia, Tennessee, Kentucky and Georgia? What is your preseason SEC East rankings?
DAWG SPORTS:At the end of the day, the Ol' Ball Coach made less of a splash than advertised. Steve Spurrier arrived in Columbia, took over a team that had gone 6-5 the year before, and made an immediate impact by leading the Gamecocks to a record of . . . 7-5. Had the 2004 Clemson-South Carolina game not devolved into a bench-clearing brawl, the Big Chickens would have gone to a bowl game in Lou Holtz's last season and the records of the 2004 and 2005 squads might have been identical.
Don't get me wrong; I take nothing for granted when the Bulldogs visit Williams-Brice Stadium on September 9. However, the Gamecocks always have been dangerous in the Palmetto State and, if history is any guide, South Carolina will beat Georgia, on average, about once every four years, so the 'Dawgs probably are due. I don't buy the idea that Darth Visor will turn the institution with the S.E.C.'s weakest overall tradition---yes, even weaker than Vanderbilt's---into a contender, though.
Steve Superior is used to winning. He won in the U.S.F.L. He won at Florida as no one has ever won before or (so far) since. For crying out loud, he even won at Duke (in the post-South Carolina, pre-Florida State, pre-Miami, pre-Virginia Tech A.C.C.). The one time in his career that he dealt with consistent futility was during his two years with the Washington Redskins, after which he quit his job and walked away. The 1966 Heisman Trophy winner is a born competitor who refuses to lose. Eventually, being the head coach of the Gamecocks will wear on him and he will hang up his visor for good.
Columbia, S.C., is where coaching careers go to die. Paul Dietzel won a national championship at L.S.U., then he went to South Carolina and had a losing record. Lou Holtz won a national championship at Notre Dame, then he went to South Carolina and had a losing record. Steve Spurrier will not finish out his initial contract term with the Gamecocks before he resigns in disgust after posting a record hovering somewhere in the neighborhood of .500.
As for the S.E.C. East, I am certain of only one thing: Kentucky will be abysmal. Other than that, who can tell? Steve Spurrier in year two at Carolina and Urban Meyer in year two at Florida could both be boom or bust. Tennessee could be especially dangerous as a wounded animal coming into the season with lowered expectations or Phillip Fulmer's decision to rehire the offensive coordinator who led the Volunteers to the 1998 national title could be as deserving of derision as Lloyd Carr's decision to rehire the offensive coordinator who led the Wolverines to the 1997 national title. Vanderbilt should return to winning two or three games a season, but there's half a chance that, after getting the Commodores within striking distance of a bowl game last season, Bobby Johnson has them buying into his system completely enough to get them to five or six wins this year.
I wouldn't be at all surprised to see the sort of three-team triangulation we've seen in the East on several occasions, in which the top three finishers tie for first place with 6-2 conferences ledgers and 1-1 records against one another, requiring the league office to tick off the tiebreakers to determine a champion.
If you're forcing me to pick the team that I believe will represent the division in Atlanta, my heart says "Georgia" and my head says "Florida" . . . although, as August approaches, I wouldn't be surprised to find my gut telling me "Tennessee." I'm not just playing to the Swamp Ball crowd when I say that my best guess right now is that the Gators will gel well enough in Coach Meyer's second season to win the right games to get them into the Georgia Dome.