Rivals Georgia and Georgia Tech prepare for the 2015 season with standout offensive weapons, stout offensive lines and defensive talent. The Bulldogs in particular have one of the nation’s best linebacker groups, and Tech’s defense should be improved over last year’s, which allowed 25.7 points per game.
Neither Georgia nor Georgia Tech is entirely overlooked heading into the fall — Tech is ranked No. 17 in the Coaches Poll, Georgia is No. 9 — but both are underrated.
Popular if not unanimous consensus, is that neither will win its conference. The Bulldogs and Yellow Jackets are favorites in their own divisions — Georgia in the SEC East, Tech in the ACC Coastal — but recent history suggests the conference champions will come from the other division. A Coastal team hasn’t won the ACC since 2010, and the SEC East’s title drought dates to 2008.
Recent history more directly tied to each program also explains pundits’ hesitation to label the Dawgs or Wreck front-runners. Both have had their successes under head coaches Mark Richt and Paul Johnson, but have hit ceilings just before reaching the top tier.
Georgia’s struggles to this end are well-documented. The Bulldogs are college football’s quintessential examples of the downside to the “game of inches” cliché. Last year’s loss to South Carolina quite literally came down to inches, and in retrospect, kept the Bulldogs out of the SEC Championship Game.
In 2013, Auburn’s miraculous run to the BCS Championship Game came, in part, at the expense of the Bulldogs.
But of Georgia’s recent losses, none is more gut-wrenching than the 2012 SEC Championship Game. Program record-setting quarterback Aaron Murray was dynamite throughout the contest, including the final drive. His final pass attempt, however, is the one-play embodiment of Georgia near-misses in its three-decade quest for a national championship.
I’m no soothsayer, but Georgia’s chances against Notre Dame in that season’s BCS Championship Game look pretty damn good. To come just a few feet from the opportunity demonstrates the cruelty of the college football cosmos.
Despite all his contributions to Georgia, Murray was denied a fitting ending when he was injured the following season. The same goes for Todd Gurley, who was lost in the stretch run of 2014 to an injury.
Gurley’s absence opened a window for 2015, however. Nick Chubb established himself as arguably the nation’s best running back in the 2014 season’s final month, and teaming with Keith Marshall and Sony Michel, while operating behind one of college football’s best offensive lines, eases the learning curve for a new quarterback.
Georgia Tech has a more recent national championship than rival Georgia, shared in 1990 with Colorado, but the Yellow Jackets have not been much of a factor in the race since. The Jackets’ last ACC championship came in 2009, a breakthrough season in head coach Paul Johnson’s second at the helm.
Johnson achieving such immediate success in Atlanta initially set expectations high, but years of middling performance subsequently lowered the bar from outside perspective.
Georgia Tech went into 2010 considered a contender for a repeat ACC championship. The Jackets regressed to 6-7. This year’s returning roster is better than the collective holdover from 2009 to 2010, starting with quarterback Justin Thomas.
Georgia’s most glaring weakness, and thus prognosticators’ No. 1 hang-up heading into 2015 is quarterback. Tech has no such problem. Thomas is the best fit at quarterback Johnson’s had in his tenure there, last season captaining the Yellow Jackets to a 37.9-point per game average.
Tech replaces the other skill positions, but returns four of five starters on the offensive line. It’s arguably the best front five in the ACC, and a key catalyst to Georgia Tech’s tough-to-defend option offense.
Ultimately, any opinions offered on these, or any other programs, are moot until the season kicks off. Both Georgia and Georgia Tech get the opportunity to exceed their expectations on the field — and if either is in the title hunt, they’ll truly have earned it.
Both play challenging schedules, as the Bulldogs draw both Auburn and Alabama in cross-divisional play in the SEC. Georgia Tech travels to Clemson and Miami, and visits potential national title contender Notre Dame on Week 3.
Their respective roads have potholes, but don’t be surprised if their Nov. 28 meeting in Atlanta is a detour toward the College Football Playoff.