In April, Georgia Tech basketball coach Paul Hewitt led his team to a surprise appearance in the national championship game in his fourth season. While Hewitt's team was making that run, Georgia football coach Mark Richt was in Athens preparing for his fourth year. The difference is this: No one will be shocked if the Bulldogs play for the national title.
In fact, many will be surprised if they don't. Georgia, having made two straight appearances in the SEC title game and returning the majority of its pivotal players from last year's team, is a fashionable pick to appear in the Orange Bowl, this year's BCS title game.
OffenseThe Bulldogs ranked fifth in the SEC in total offense (380.3) and seventh in scoring offense (26.5) in 2003. Those numbers sicken Richt, who made his name on offense and every season aspires to be among the top five teams in the nation in those categories. The main reason for the struggles was an offensive line that gave up an SEC-worst 47 sacks. The line should be better this year, but starting guards Josh Brock and Bartley Miller missed all of spring practice due to shoulder injuries. Miller is questionable for the 2004 season, so the Bulldogs won't know how much the line has improved until the fall.
If the line protects better, quarterback David Greene could have a Heisman-worthy season. Last season, facing almost constant pressure, he had the worst touchdown-to-interception ratio of his career (13-11). Backup D.J. Shockley will continue to rotate in for Greene occasionally.
Sophomore running back Kregg Lumpkin got going late and earned his first start in the Capital One Bowl. The big back (6-foot-1, 211 pounds) averaged 4.7 yards per carry, the best among the team's regulars.
On the perimeter, Georgia must get more production from its wide receivers, particularly talented veterans Fred Gibson and Reggie Brown. Georgia's receivers caught nine touchdown passes last year. Two LSU receivers each had more than that.
DefenseGeorgia finished third in the country in scoring defense (14.5) and fourth in total defense (276.9) in 2003, and this year's group could be better. All-America defensive end David Pollack returned for his final season rather than entering the NFL Draft. He needs six sacks to break the school's career record, and he easily could get that, particularly with Will Thompson coming back after a season-ending ankle injury to man the other end.
Linebacker Odell Thurman and safety Thomas Davis will make opponents hurt and NFL scouts salivate. Defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder builds his unit around speed. Safety Greg Blue, who will try to fill Sean Jones' shoes, is another big hitter who can run.
SpecialistsPlace-kicker Billy Bennett walked on at Georgia and ended up as a four-year starter. He set the NCAA record for single-season field goals (31) and attempts (38) last season. The battle for his job is wide open. As a team, the Bulldogs have excelled in special teams under Richt, blocking eight punts, eight field goals, two extra points and scoring six special teams touchdowns in his three years.
Final AnalysisThe Bulldogs need improvement from their offensive line, consistency from their receivers and a steady place-kicker to reach the lofty expectations set for them. The rest of the pieces -- including the senior quarterback, the emerging running back and the defense loaded with all-star candidates -- are in place. If they don't get healthy up front and find a handful of dependable receivers, they'll have to rely again on the defense. The legitimacy of the team's national title hopes will be determined early. Defending co-national champion LSU and Tennessee visit Sanford Stadium on back-to-back weekends in October. If Georgia emerges from those games 5–0, it will have Miami and the Orange Bowl in its sights. Of course, the Bulldogs would still have to go through Jacksonville, and the Florida Gators, winners of 13 of the past 14 against Georgia.