Philadelphia, PA – In the vaunted SEC, there are 13 teams all vying for a chance to knock two-time defending national champion Alabama from its lofty perch.
Since its inception in 1998, the Bowl Championship Series has named a school from the SEC its top team nine times, with the Crimson Tide not only winning the last two, but three of the last four. The BCS last crowned a champion from a league other than the SEC when Texas beat USC back in January of 2006, meaning the last seven champs have come from what is clearly the nation's top conference.
Tennessee won the inaugural BCS championship, Auburn owns a crown, and both LSU and Florida have a pair of titles to their credit. The one team left conspicuously off that list is Georgia, a program rich in history but barren in terms of any significant national recognition in more than 30 years.
All told, the Bulldogs have claimed a total of five national titles, but the last was way back in 1980. Under the direction of legendary coach Vince Dooley, Georgia won six SEC crowns, with two immediately following the '80 national championship, but dark days lie ahead as two decades passed before UGA returned to the top of the SEC heap, turning the trick twice (2002, 2005) under current head man Mark Richt.
Georgia is the two-time defending SEC East Division champs, but the 'Dawgs came up short against both LSU (2011) and Alabama (2012) in the conference championship game, saddling them with the 'always a bridesmaid, never a bride' label.
While Alabama is believed to the be the cream of the crop in the SEC once again, UGA will be in the mix, thanks in large part to one of the more explosive offenses in the country. The Bulldogs will count heavily on senior quarterback Aaron Murray, who after throwing for 3,893 yards and 36 touchdowns last season, is a serious threat to win the Heisman Trophy, and could wind up as the SEC record-holder in both career passing yards and passing scores when it's all said and done.
Junior Malcolm Mitchell (40 receptions, 572 yards, 4 touchdowns) is slated to be the club's No. 1 receiver with former standout Tavarres King (42 receptions, 950 yards, 9 touchdowns) having vacated the spot.
Not content to simply take their chances in the air, the Bulldogs will utilize the talents of sophomore running back Todd Gurley who amassed 1,385 yards and 17 touchdowns as a rookie, while his battery mate, fellow sophomore Keith Marshall is hoping to better the 759 yards and 8 scores he logged last season for a unit that averaged 182.6 ypg on the ground.
With the offense expected to click on all cylinders, defense is where the Bulldogs really need to show some teeth, particularly with regard to stopping the run as foes generated 182.1 ypg on the ground and scored 4 more rushing touchdowns than passing in 2012. The 'Dawgs lost their top four tacklers (Alec Ogletree, Shawn Williams, Jarvis Jones and Bacarri Rambo) from last season, leaving junior linebacker Amarlo Herrera (70 stops) as the man to lead the way this fall.
Junior cornerback Damian Swann was the team leader in interceptions (4), and he will be instrumental in helping the secondary make its mark, especially with the season-opening suspension of sophomore safety Josh Harvey-Clemons, a bit player last season who is hoping to have a much bigger role in 2013.
Despite the questions surrounding his defense, Richt is eager to get training camp underway as the spring revealed some interesting story lines.
"There's a lot of competition right now, and I think that's really good," Richt said back in April. "If you're working out this summer thinking you've nailed something down, you'd better recheck your thinking. We'll have 29 practices in the fall, and it will take 20 of them before we decide who will start across the board."
There is little doubt that Georgia will be one of the top teams in the SEC, and the nation for that matter, but there are no guarantees that preseason hype will result in postseason glory.
One guy who is chomping at the bit to get going after biding his time the last few years is senior defensive end Garrison Smith.
"I want to leave a legacy as one of the all-time greatest teams to ever come through the University of Georgia," Smith said. "We're going to have a lot of young guys coming through. Me being the lone senior on the defense, I would love to go out and bring a national championship to the University of Georgia and for Athens and the whole state of Georgia."
Herrera is another veteran who expects to perform at an elevated level, and he has noticed the effort put in by his newer teammates to this point, "We have all the young guys on the same page and they're working hard the way that we work hard. I think we have done a pretty good job of that so far. Our job is to work hard and these young guys are hard workers. They go out and work hard and improve each day and you can see that in the way they practice. They're making plays."
Whether the team makes enough impact plays to win another SEC East title and dethrone the mighty Crimson Tide remains to be seen, but as long as Murray, Gurley and company have a say, these Bulldogs will battle to the bitter end.