ATHENS, Ga. -- If Malcolm Mitchell seems disinterested by Georgia’s preseason ranking -- the Bulldogs are No. 5 in the USA Today coaches poll that debuted on Thursday -- it’s because he believes there is only one number that matters.
“Five, six, seven, two, three, four -- if we’re not one, it don’t matter,” the Georgia receiver said Thursday afternoon, shortly before the team’s first preseason practice. “So we’re working to get to one.”
The Bulldogs believed they had a team that could be No. 1 last season, and they fell just short of a chance to at least play for a BCS crown when a late rally died at Alabama’s 5-yard line in the SEC championship game. They’ll open 2013 back near the top of the poll -- with their highest preseason ranking since opening the 2008 season at No. 1 -- after posting a 22-6 record over the past two seasons and winning back-to-back SEC East titles.
“Every year, Georgia is a good program," senior guard Chris Burnette said. "I feel like the past two years, we’ve tried to get it back on track to where we’ve shown the country that we are a team that’s going to be in the championship mix regardless of the other things that are going on around the country. It’s good to have that respect.”
Perhaps because he’s tired of dredging up the heart-wrenching ending to that game, and perhaps because his defense will look completely different this year after losing 12 key contributors, Georgia coach Mark Richt emphasized Thursday that the quicker this team can move past last season’s outcome, the better it will be for all involved.
“People still want to talk about last year. And a lot of people still want to talk about last year’s SEC championship game,” Richt said. “But the players know, the coaches know that it’s a new year and it’s a new team. And I think they’re looking forward to their own identity and they understand they have to have a new identity, and we’re not really sure what it’s going to be.”
That’s what will make the next month particularly important for this Georgia team.
Gone are stalwarts from last season such as All-American Jarvis Jones, linebacker Alec Ogletree and six more teammates who became NFL draft selections. There are roles to fill throughout the depth chart, particularly on defense -- and while that isn’t exactly an area of concern for the coaching staff, it’s certainly a source of curiosity.
“I’m not concerned, like fretting, like, ‘Oh we don’t have an answer for any position across the board,' ” Richt said. “I’m more curious just to see how quickly just the entire defense can jell and just watch them perform. We’ll get a taste.
“It’s just like I got a pretty good taste of Todd Gurley and Keith Marshall [last August, when the freshman tailbacks seized leading roles in the backfield] before we played a game. I’m going to get a pretty good taste of what our defense looks like before we play a game. But until you get in a game, you really aren’t sure how everybody’s going to react under that type of game pressure.”
The coaches will find out how they’ll react to high-pressure situations quickly. The Bulldogs’ Aug. 31 opener is at No. 8 Clemson. They’ll host No. 7 South Carolina in Game 2. And No. 13 LSU will visit Sanford Stadium in Game 4.
“It’s really just setting it up for the type of football games that we come to Georgia to play,” Burnette said.
Rest assured that the Bulldogs likely will not still be ranked fifth by the time they reach October, once LSU has left town. A loss or two against those highly ranked opponents will obviously damage Georgia’s title hopes and cause them to drop in the polls. But somehow managing to knock off all three would place Georgia among the leading national championship contenders.
“We’re not settling for less,” Burnette said. “No. 5 is great, but we’re looking to be No. 1.”