Four years: That's how long it's been since Georgia's football team came into a season with expectations this high. That was the last time the Bulldogs were coming off a 10-win regular season, the last time their preseason poll ranking was a single digit. The Beijing Olympics had just concluded, Barack Obama hadn't even been elected president yet, and the idea of the South Carolina Gamecocks as a budding SEC powerhouse was something you could still snicker at.
A lot has happened in four years, of course. The Dawgs forfeited their claim to that No. 1 preseason ranking in 2008 before the month of September was over, getting blown off their own field by Nick Saban's Crimson Tide -- and they just kept digging from there, bottoming out with a 6-7 season in 2010 and a bowl loss to a UCF team that previous Mark Richt squads would've handled easily. The Dawgs climbed back to a 10-4 record and an SEC East title last season, but with most of those wins coming against mediocre opponents -- the Dawgs didn't beat anybody ranked higher than No. 20 in the AP poll -- there's a sense that Georgia still isn't all the way back just yet. The team has certainly improved, but it remains good, not great.
Of course, if both the sportswriters and the coaches have seen fit to bestow a No. 6 preseason ranking on the 2012 Dawgs, it appears they think this is the year when the Dawgs fulfill the potential that's gone unrealized the past four years. But what do the Dawgs have to do to actually achieve that? Where do we draw the unofficial line above which the 2012 season can be called a success?
Do the 2012 Dawgs have to perform better than the 2011 team statistically?
On the surface, the answer is yes, of course they do -- if the 2011 team was merely "good," then that's not going to cut it for a lot of fans. The thing is, Georgia's schedule is easier this season than it was last year. On the conference slate, we've effectively traded Mississippi State for Missouri, which is a small step up, but in out-of-conference play we've gone from Georgia Tech, Boise State and two scrub opponents to . . . well, Georgia Tech and three scrub opponents. Depending on your perspective, we've swapped out the Broncos, who finished last year with 12 wins and a top-10 ranking, for either Buffalo or Florida Atlantic.
So the Dawgs could actually fall off a bit statistically and it might not show up in the wins column. A statistical step back seems likely on the offensive side, where Georgia's having to not only break in three new starters on the offensive line but also start over in the RB corps following the dismissal of last year's leading rusher, Isaiah Crowell. While a slight drop-off in offensive production might be seen as forgivable, however, the same isn't necessarily true for the defense, which returns nine starters from a unit that was fifth in the nation in 2011 in total yards allowed and seems to have finally found a groove in Todd Grantham's scheme. The resurgence of the Bulldog defense, more than anything else, has given Georgia fans hope that the program might be headed back in the right direction -- and there will be some furrowed brows in Athens if the D doesn't maintain its elite status.
Which games are must-wins?
Sadly for Georgia fans who were hoping for Steve Spurrier to end up mired in mediocrity in his new digs in Columbia, the Gamecocks have established themselves as a pivotal game on the Bulldogs' annual schedule. Yes, the Dawgs lost to Carolina last year and still took home the division title, and yes, the same thing could happen this season with the Gamecocks traveling to Baton Rouge to face LSU exactly one week after they play Georgia. But a win over Spurrier would give the Dawgs some critical breathing room in the East Division race -- and not only that, it'd avoid Georgia's first three-game losing streak to South Carolina in the program's history.
A game that might turn out to be just as critical in the division race is Florida, but here, too, the bragging rights at stake might be even more important. If Georgia wins in Jacksonville this year, that'd be their first back-to-back wins in the World's Largest Outdoor Cocktail Party since the 1980s, and a hopeful sign that the "Gator Curse" first cast by Steve Spurrier and continued by Ron Zook and Urban Meyer is finally over.
Then, of course, there's the SEC opener that takes the Dawgs to the home of their brand-new East Division rivals, the Missouri Tigers. This game has been flying under the radar less and less as the start of the season gets closer, and while there's not much of a historic rivalry between UGA and Mizzou outside their journalism schools, a loss in Columbia would put the Dawgs' division-title hopes on life support before the first month of the season was even half-over.
How many wins?
Last year the Dawgs were widely considered to have taken advantage of a Charmin-soft SEC East, yet they still needed seven conference wins to secure the division title. They may need that many again this year, with South Carolina remaining a strong contender under Spurrier and Florida potentially regaining some ground in Will Muschamp's second season as head coach.
If Georgia can beat South Carolina, they can probably afford to lose two other conference games and still book a repeat performance in the SEC Championship Game. Lose to the Gamecocks, though, and every subsequent conference game becomes an elimination match. So with six or seven SEC wins needed to claim the division, and the Dawgs widely favored to win all four of their non-conference matchups, let's say 10 or 11 wins are where we set the bar for a successful season in 2011. Nine wins would be a bit of a disappointment, but not necessarily a disaster; eight or fewer, though, and all of a sudden we're reviving the "hot seat" talk that Mark Richt put to rest with 2011's bounce-back campaign.
What about the postseason?
Technically, the Dawgs don't need to win the division to have a shot at a BCS bowl game. If, say, the Dawgs place second in the East with a 6-2 conference record but the division champs get stomped by Alabama or LSU in the SEC title game, a 10-win Georgia squad would make a very attractive at-large team for any of the BCS bowls. Problem is, Alabama and LSU both look BCS-caliber this year, and whichever one of them doesn't win the West will still be a very attractive at-large pick as well.
If Georgia does make it back to Atlanta, do they have a shot at beating either the Tide or the Tigers? Perhaps -- after all, the Dawgs were leading LSU 10-0 right before halftime last year, having throttled the Tigers' offense for most of the first half. Given that Georgia is breaking in a green offensive line and starting back at square one in the RB corps, though, "SEC champs or bust" might be a little too vehement. If the Dawgs can put up a respectable performance in the SEC title game and earn a bowl bid more prestigious than last year's, they'd at least carry some momentum into a very promising 2013 season.
Ten or 11 wins, an SEC East title and a January bowl bid: Is that too much to ask from a team with so many questions on the offensive line and a lot of untested talent in the offensive backfield? Perhaps, but consider the situation Georgia faced in 2003. The defense had developed into an elite unit and a veteran QB was returning, but the Dawgs were without a feature running back and were breaking in five new starters on the offensive line. Yet they still rumbled to 11 wins, a division championship and a win in the Capital One Bowl -- and a No. 6 final ranking in the coaches' poll.
The 2003 season was a sign that Mark Richt could overcome personnel challenges and keep the Georgia program producing at a high level. If he can clear a similar bar in 2012, it'd be a sign that the failures of the past few seasons have been put to rest and the program has regained its elite status. The expectations have indeed been set high for the 2012 Dawgs, but it's up to them whether they see it as a curse or a challenge.