Oregon out to conquer old demons (cont.)
Three years ago this week, Mark Richt's Georgia Bulldogs were the No. 1 team in the country. That didn't last long, as USC passed them in both polls after just one game. Georgia finished that 2008 season 10-3, slipped to 8-5 the following year and fell to 6-7 last year, it's first losing record since 1996.
Yet here we are, with the Dawgs already back in the rankings (they opened 19th in the AP, 22nd in the Coaches') and the season-opening spotlight for Saturday night's Chick-fil-A Kickoff Game in Atlanta against fifth-ranked Boise State. Richt signed off on the tough opener specifically to kick start his slumping program.
"Where we were at that time [last fall] was a decline in our record, a decline in how people perceived our program, a place that I didn't really like, I wasn't very comfortable in, wasn't used to," Richt said at SEC Media Days. "I said, 'What better way to send a surge of energy into this program than to schedule a game like that?'"
It's a sign of just how much respect Boise has garnered in recent years that a prominent SEC program scheduled the Broncos, and that the SEC team is the one hoping to make a statement. Theoretically the game is far more important for Chris Petersen's team, which has no margin for error in its annual BCS quest. But Richt desperately needs this win to build his team's confidence heading into a crucial game the following week against No. 12 South Carolina, Georgia's presumed chief competitor in the SEC East.
Start 2-0 and the Dawgs will probably soar into the Top 10. Start 0-2 and the calls for Richt's head will resume.
"I like [the Boise game] because it's energized our offseason, it's energized our camp," Richt told SI.com. "I'll like it better if we can get the victory, but no matter what happens in the football game, we're going to learn a lot about our team. ... It's pushing us to become as good as we can possibly be Game 1."
Perhaps scheduling this game led the pollsters to pay such respect to a team last seen losing to UCF in the Liberty Bowl. Perhaps budding star quarterback Aaron Murray had something to do with it. Perhaps it was because of Richt's most recent signing class, which he coined "The Dream Team" and which should produce its share of early contributors, including touted running back Isaiah Crowell.
"We weren't too far off last year," said Richt. "Six of the games we lost we were within a touchdown in the fourth quarter and we just didn't finish well. If we were just getting whupped every game and had no hope, it'd be a lot different offseason."
Georgia's defense, which struggled on third downs last season while allowing 41.9 percent conversions, will certainly have its work cut out trying to get Kellen Moore off the field. The hope in Athens is that the emergence of monstrous sophomore nose tackle Kwame Geathers (6-6, 350) and touted USC transfer linebacker Jarvis Jones will help transform the Dawgs into a dominant run defense, forcing more third-and-longs.
But this is an infinitely more talented Boise team than the one that suffered a 48-13 drubbing in Athens six years ago. In a similar "neutral" site game last year in Washington D.C., Moore led the Broncos on a game-winning touchdown drive to beat eventual ACC champ Virginia Tech.
Richt has said he mistakenly thought Moore would be graduating back when he accepted the game. Moore didn't, but that's probably for the best. Boise wouldn't be ranked nearly as high without its quarterback, and therefore a Georgia victory wouldn't produce nearly the same national statement Richt is hoping to make.
Wisconsin-UNLV is not exactly a glamour matchup, but that's the best ESPN could do for this year's Thursday night opener. Fortunately for both the network and its football-starved viewers, there's at least one newsy reason to tune in: Russell Wilson's Wisconsin debut.
The former three-year N.C. State starter, known for his impeccable scrambling ability and improvisation, is one of the main reasons many are picking the 11th-ranked Badgers to win a second straight Big Ten crown despite losing 11 starters from last year's Rose Bowl team. Wilson, who threw for 8,545 yards, 76 touchdowns and 26 interceptions (14 of them last season) with the Wolfpack, left baseball's Class-A Asheville Tourists abruptly in late June and immediately headed to Madison -- where he's eligible this season because he completed his undergraduate degree -- for a crash-course on the playbook.
There were obvious concerns regarding how the 11th-hour arrival of such a high-profile outsider might affect the Badgers' chemistry, but a reassuring sign came last week when teammates voted Wilson one of four co-captains.
"I feel like he's been part of the team for a long time," receiver Nick Toon told the New York Times.
While the Badgers would likely handle UNLV (which went 2-11 last season) with or without Wilson, it will be interesting to see how the very un-Wisconsin-like quarterback fits into the mostly vanilla, smashmouth offense. While the program is known primarily for its prolific running backs, including returnees Montee Ball and James White, its quarterbacks have notably improved since the 2005 arrival of respected offensive coordinator Paul Chryst. Scott Tolzien, Wisconsin's starter the past two seasons, set career records for pass efficiency (153.2) and completion percentage (68.1), while predecessors John Stocco and Tyler Donovan finished third and fourth in the latter category.
Chryst's goal, therefore, will be to turn Wilson into a more controlled and efficient passer (he completed just 58.4 percent of his passes last season) while still allowing him to freelance enough to take advantage of his mobility. So tune in for that.
Each week, I'll update my projected BCS lineup (as necessary) based on the latest week's games. Here's my preseason edition:
Title game: Alabama vs. Oklahoma
Rose: Oregon vs. Nebraska
Fiesta: Notre Dame vs. Wisconsin
Sugar: South Carolina vs. Florida State
Orange: Virginia Tech vs. USF
While my national championship matchup is not exactly original, I've gone against the grain in several other areas. For one, I'm sticking with Virginia Tech as the king of the ACC, though I'm high enough on Florida State that I'm awarding the Seminoles the league's first at-large berth. USF is my pick in the Big East due mainly to respect for Skip Holtz and the strides I expect the Bulls to take in his second season after finishing last year strong. Ditto for my faith in Notre Dame's Brian Kelly.
One notable omission: Boise State ... or any other non-AQ team. At least one has earned a berth every year since the BCS expanded to five games in 2006 and lowered the threshold for a guaranteed berth from top six to top 12. But conference realignment has left the Mountain West as arguably the lone league possessing programs with enough credibility to earn such respect, and I have a feeling Boise, TCU and San Diego State may all knock each other off.
I reserve the right to make an immediate revision next week if the Broncos crush Georgia.