ATHENS -- Each preseason offers hope, especially to those teams that are expected to contend for postseason titles.
Georgia falls into that position year in and year out. Yet the fact remains that since Georgia head coach Mark Richt took over the program in 2001, the Bulldogs have failed to win a national championship. They’ve won two conference titles but none since 2005.
Georgia has had some exceptional football teams in that span, including the 2012 squad that fell just 5 yards short against Alabama in a thrilling 32-28 SEC championship loss. And the Bulldogs have produced many future NFL stars under Richt’s watch, including Detroit Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford and Kansas City Chiefs outside linebacker Justin Houston -- two of the highest-paid players in the game.
This year’s team should once again be in contention for the SEC East title, which Missouri has claimed the previous two seasons.
Georgia’s running back corps is deep, with Nick Chubb, Sony Michel and Keith Marshall leading the way. The receivers are deep in numbers, with a couple of proven playmakers in senior Malcolm Mitchell and sophomore Isaiah McKenzie. The defense features a talented trio at outside linebacker in Jordan Jenkins, Leonard Floyd and Lorenzo Carter and two budding athletic inside linebackers in Reggie Carter and Tim Kimbrough.
But questions do linger at quarterback, where a new starter -- either Brice Ramsey, Greyson Lambert or Faton Bauta -- will take over for the second consecutive season. The secondary is still young but experienced, with sophomores Malkom Parrish and Dominick Sanders adjusting quickly to the college game in their first year on campus. And the defensive line will have to replace three contributors up front, with one candidate being true freshman and five-star recruit Trenton Thompson.
That said, is this the year Richt is able to break through and get the Bulldogs their first SEC conference title in 10 years, given what’s at Georgia’s disposal?
“You’re not going to get there if you’re not prepared for week one, week two or week three,” tight end Jay Rome said.
“We’re just worried about the first game. We’ll get to that when we get there,” running back Keith Marshall said.
OK, so some players don’t want to, at least on the record, concern themselves with a hypothetical that would take place after Georgia’s first 12 games.
Sixth-year senior Kolton Houston, however, was willing to state his desire for the upcoming season. Houston, who was ineligible during his first three seasons at Georgia, could have moved on to the next phase of his life after playing the past two. Granted a sixth year by the NCAA, Houston elected to come back with one goal in mind.
“I didn’t come back to go 9-3 or 10-2,” Houston said. “I came back to win it all. It’s win it all, or it’s a bust for me. That’s the mindset I’m taking.”
Last year, Georgia experienced three hiccups to rivals -- a 38-35 loss to South Carolina, a 38-20 loss to Florida and a 30-24 overtime loss to Georgia Tech. The South Carolina and Georgia Tech games were winnable. The Florida game served as the anomaly in that the Bulldogs weren’t competitive after the first quarter.
Georgia’s players feel they have the potential to win those kind of games this year. If anything, the motivation of last year’s losses is pushing them.
“I feel like as a team we were unsatisfied,” defensive back Aaron Davis said. “Our goal is to raise the level so we can reach our maximum potential.”
ABOUT THE GEORGIA BULLDOGS
Head coach: Mark Richt (136-48 in 14 seasons overall and at Georgia).
2014 record: 10-3, 6-2 SEC.
Returning offensive starters: Nick Chubb (Soph., RB); Jeb Blazevich (Soph., TE); Malcolm Mitchell (Sr., WR); John Theus (Sr., LT); Brandon Kublanow (Jr., C); Greg Pyke (Jr., RG); Kolton Houston (Sr., RT).
Returning defensive starters: Jordan Jenkins (Sr., OLB); Leonard Floyd (Jr., OLB); Lorenzo Carter (Sr., OLB); Aaron Davis (Soph., CB); Quincy Mauger (Jr., S), Dominick Sanders (Soph., S).
Three keys to success: 1. The Bulldogs first need consistency at the quarterback position. While the running game should be exceptional, either Brice Ramsey, Greyson Lambert or Faton Bauta will need to make the necessary throws while limiting turnovers.
2. The offensive line will start the year among the best in the nation. But depth is lacking. Behind sixth man Hunter Long, who can play center and guard, the offensive line lacks proven players who can step in and play without missing a beat. The offensive line will need to avoid multiple injuries, which mostly comes down to luck.
3. The defensive line will need some playmakers to step up after losing three contributors to graduation. Freshman Trenton Thompson probably will see a lot of playing time this season and could open the year as a starter. If the defensive line can win some battles up front, the outside linebackers will feast in opposing backfields.
Sept. 5 Louisiana-Monroe, Noon
Sept. 12 at Vanderbilt, 3:30 p.m.
Sept. 19 South Carolina, 6 p.m.
Sept. 26 Southern U., TBA
Oct. 3 Alabama, TBA
Oct. 10 at Tennessee, TBA
Oct. 17 Missouri, TBA
Oct. 31 at Florida, 3:30 p.m.
Nov. 7 Kentucky, TBA
Nov. 14 at Auburn, TBA
Nov. 21 Georgia Southern, TBA
Nov. 28 at Georgia Tech, TBA