Suffering “the most interminable offseason in sports,“ one longs for that quintessentially American guilty pleasure, college football. Perhaps that’s why Duquesne Brewing has sold “close to a million cans” of lager named after the late, legendary coach Joe Paterno. How else to ride out the dog days of summer in the USA?
With the orgy of bowl games and playoff games now a hazy memory, a new season kicks off Thursday night (unless, of course, you already broke into the emergency stash and watched last Saturday’s FCS contest between North Dakota State and Montana). Now is the time to prepare. Taking a spin through this season’s plentitude of previews, prognostications and prevarications (there are few things of more dubious provenance than purported expertise in predicting outcomes in college football), a few things stand out about the national scene:
- It’s Urban Meyer’s world, and we all just live in it. Ohio State smashed its playoff foes, Alabama and Oregon, to claim the first-ever playoffs-anointed (i.e., undisputed) national championship. Amazingly, almost all of the key players from the championship squad are returning. Meyer’s recruiting has yielded matchless depth on both sides of the ball, making the Buckeyes a unanimous favorite to repeat. With little hesitation, those who accept the fool’s errand of drawing up preseason rankings (including the AP and the coaches) have given Ohio State the top spot. Meyer, winner of two national championships at Florida (and a perfect season before that at Utah, of all places), seems poised to create a dynasty in Columbus to rival (or surpass) that of his arch rival in Tuscaloosa, Nick Saban.
- The SEC Moment is Over (for now). From 2006-2012, every winner of the now-defunct BCS hailed from down south. After Auburn’s close loss to Florida State in the Rose Bowl following the 2013 season, the Southeastern Conference still seemed the bully on the block. Invidious contrasts between the stogy midwesterners of the Big Ten and the dynamism of the SEC continued all the way up until Ohio State ran rings around Saban’s Alabama Crimson Tide in the Sugar Bowl. A burst of nationwide glee greeted the beatdowns of Ole Miss and Mississippi State in New Year’s bowls, as the SEC seemed, at last, the proverbial emperor without clothes. While this uncharitable reaction was exaggerated (the SEC actually posted a winning record in bowl season, 7-5), it does appear we have moved from the SEC’s unipolar, one-superpower world to a more complex multipolar era wherein the Pac-12, Big Ten, ACC, and Big 12 have established, along with the SEC, genuine parity. That can’t be bad for the sport.
The SEC’s rivals all look stronger and deeper than than have in some time. With UCLA and USC fully loaded and with the revival of Arizona and Arizona State, the Pac-12 South compares favorably to the SEC West (whose stalwarts went 2-5 during bowl season). At least two teams from the Big 12 have national championship aspirations (TCU is ranked number 2 and Baylor number 4 in the AP Top 25) and the same is true in the Big Ten (Michigan State may well be underrated even at number 5). The ACC, long the butt of jokes, is more than just FSU, with Clemson, Georgia Tech and perhaps Louisville contending for a conference title and playoff berth (to say nothing of the partial ACC member, Notre Dame). As for the SEC, as Matt Hinton writes on Grantland, “it is a brave new world when there are legitimate fears about the SEC being shut out of the playoff altogether, which suddenly seems if not likely then at least plausible.” Each SEC West team has plenty of talent, but “all have glaring flaws that make them vulnerable amid the relentless weekly grind that is the conference slate.”
Since MoS is all about the ATL, let’s have a glance at the three major local teams (sorry, Kennesaw State): the Georgia Bulldogs, Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets, and (don’t laugh) the Georgia State Panthers.
Whither Mark Richt?
Ranked ninth in the AP poll, the Dawgs enter the season in their customary role as favorites in the SEC East. Head Coach Mark Richt continues the longest run of anyone in the SEC, having steered UGA football since 2001, and this longevity gives the program stability. It also enhances recruitment. Routinely, top-ten classes full of blue-chippers don the red and black. With two SEC championships and an impressive overall record of 136 wins and 48 losses, Richt is one of the country’s most successful coaches.
However. The Georgia faithful grow restless and the rest of the country tweaks Richt for failing to win a national title, for failing to win the conference since 2005, and for failing with regularity to win big games. The 2014 Bulldogs exemplified the last decade of Georgia football. A talented team, they posted impressive blowouts of Clemson, Missouri, Arkansas, and Auburn, but somehow managed to lose three times to less talented opponents, including a dreadful no-show job against their biggest rival, Florida. A 37-14 win over Louisville in the Belk Bowl did little to lessen the disappointment. As a recent profile in Atlanta Magazine reminds us, some fans wonder if the deeply devout Richt is “too nice” to win big like the cutthroat mercenaries Meyer and Saban (the owners of a combined seven national titles):
He’s devoted not only to Christ but to what he calls “the Georgia Way,” a philosophy based on winning with integrity and turning out players who can excel in life.
Winning big would silence such talk, of course, and with Heisman Trophy-caliber running back Nick Chubb leading the way, Georgia has the firepower to do a lot of damage this fall. Unfortunately, this appears to be a transitional year at the all-important quarterback position. Then, too, the schedule is less favorable than in most previous seasons. The Bulldogs welcome Alabama “Between the Hedges” for the first time since 2008. Though a great opportunity for a statement win, the odds are no better than even. While the Dawgs should avenge their 2014 losses to South Carolina and Florida, and perhaps even Georgia Tech, two other key games loom: visits to Tennessee and Auburn. Richt struggles at “Rocky Top,” the Volunteers always play Georgia tough, and this year the Vols seem loaded with young talent and a proven QB. The visit to Auburn seems fraught, too. The Tigers will want revenge for their pounding last season, and with Florida’s former head coach Will Muschamp taking over as Auburn’s defensive coordinator, the 2015 version of the War Eagle will likely be more fearsome.
Thus, even a very good-to-excellent Georgia squad could well find itself entering bowl season once more with a 9-3 record. If so, the rumblings about Richt will be loud enough not to unseat him, but to tarnish a legacy of consistent winning.
Age of Johnson
Quite likely, the Yellow Jackets deserve better than their number 16 AP ranking. They did, after all, close out a strong season with a win at Georgia, a narrow loss on a neutral field against then-No.1-ranked FSU, and a thrashing of Mississippi State in the Orange Bowl. That triumph was Head Coach Paul Johnson’s long-awaited statement win.
With Justin Thomas returning, Johnson will continue racking up astonishing numbers with his unconventional ground game. Thomas runs the show as well as any QB can and is coming off a season in which he gained 1,086 yards rushing. Tech routinely punishes opponents like this, as Matt Hinton explains:
After seven years, opposing ACC defenses know exactly what they’re going to get from Paul Johnson’s triple-option attack — Georgia Tech has averaged between 54 and 58 carries per game six years running, most in the nation each year outside of the similarly option-oriented service academies — but they’re no closer to solving it. In fact, 2014 was a banner year for Johnson’s system, yielding the most yards (476.5) and points (37.9) per game in the coach’s tenure
Hinton suggests that the Yellow Jackets “may be a legitimate playoff dark horse,” despite a schedule that features such worthy opponents as Clemson, Florida State, Notre Dame and Georgia. How’s this for a dark horse?
Someone out there likes them. They’re ranked 15th in the CBS Sports Preseason 128 and unanimously picked by CBS Sports writers to win the ACC Coastal, which is one step away from winning the league, which is one step away from planting that question in the heads of the selection committee.
Georgia Tech in the College Football Playoff?
Since 2010, the university with the largest enrollment in the Peach state (thanks, Georgia Perimeter!) has been struggling to establish a football identity. Now competing in what used to be called Division I (FBS), Georgia State plays in the Sun Belt Conference. That’s not a launching pad for the kind of playoff speculation Georgia and Georgia Tech enjoy, but it is for a bowl game (the conference champion plays in the New Orleans Bowl, one of four Sun Belt tie-ins for minor bowls).
First, however, GSU needs some victories. The Panthers have won only two games over the past three seasons. Not that many students have noticed, as empty seats blossom darkly all over the Georgia Dome.
Why will that change in 2015? It might not. However, this year’s Panthers are led by the best QB in the conference, Nick Arbuckle. The senior is coming off a season in which he led the Sun Belt in passing yards and touchdown passes. According to Doug Roberson in the AJC, “Arbuckle will work with a talented group of wide receivers, almost all of whom were on the team last season.” He is also joined by several new Panthers who transferred from the dying program at the University of Alabama-Birmingham.
Perhaps it is an illusion, but the arrival of this new season feels different. If an upset win at Oregon on September 19 is the miracle that will not happen, a burst of overdue momentum in the middle of the Sun Belt schedule could finally put GSU on the map. Roberson suggests that come December 5, when the Panthers visit their rivals at Georgia Southern, “With some luck, Georgia State could be gunning for a sixth win and bowl eligibility in this meeting.” If the men’s basketball team could win a game in the NCAA tournament, why can’t 2015 also be springtime for GSU Football?
Whatever happens, addicts of the most American sport have no longer to wait.