Georgia has the senior horses to make a run at the national championship.
Armed with reliable veterans at key positions, the third-ranked Bulldogs will open the 2004 schedule Saturday against visiting Georgia Southern.
This may be Georgia’s most highly anticipated season since the Herschel Walker era from 1980-83, when the team won one national championship and three SEC titles.
In fact, this squad may have the school’s first three-time All-American since Walker, with David Pollack coming off a season in which he won the Ted Hendricks Award as the nation’s top defensive end. The 6-foot-3, 276-pound senior is among the veteran leaders that helped the team receive a top-five ranking in the AP preseason poll for the first time.
“Personally, I want to win every game,” said Pollack, who had 14 sacks in 2002 and was the SEC player of the year before persistent double teams cut into his numbers last season.
“But when it comes to my personal goals, they are not for me, they are for the team. I just want to go out there and make plays so the team can be better and we can win more games.”
The Bulldogs fell to eventual co-national champion LSU in last year’s SEC title game, but enter this season one spot ahead of the Tigers in the AP poll despite losing both meetings last year.
“I honestly don’t think a lot about it,” senior quarterback David Greene said. “Nothing has been done yet.”
Greene, 32-8 as a starter, is well within reach of breaking Peyton Manning’s NCAA record of 39 victories by a quarterback.
Breaking the mark against Florida would make it that much sweeter. That will be the opponent in Georgia’s eighth game of the season, and Greene has never defeated the Gators in three attempts.
“I want to win that game badly,” said Greene, who completed a career-high 60 percent of his passes for 3,307 yards in 2003.
“I would be lying if I were to say anything different. It has kept us from going on to bigger and better things.”
Greene and receiver Fred Gibson, a key cog to the passing attack, have both displayed their senior leadership by example.
Greene lost about 20 pounds in the offseason to make himself quicker in the pocket. Last season, slowed by a knee injury, Greene was sacked 41 times.
“I just couldn’t move around like I wanted,” he said. “Hopefully, that’ll be different this year.”
Gibson gave up playing for the Georgia basketball team after the 2002-03 season to focus on football, then put in extra time in the weightroom this offseason to get to 205 pounds—up from his 2003 playing weight of 195.
“The main thing for Fred is he was here all summer, lifting and running,” Georgia coach Mark Richt said. “I think all of that is going to help him. I’m sure he’s added a couple pounds of muscle, too.”
On the other side of the ball, Pollack and senior safety Thomas Davis, who led the team with 138 tackles, lead a unit which finished fourth nationally in total defense and tied for second in points allowed.
“I think like with the team we have, we can live up to the expectations,” Davis said. “Everybody has to go out and play as hard as we are capable of playing.”
The inexperience comes in the running game, with freshman Danny Ware expected to start after sophomore Kregg Lumpkin suffered a season-ending knee injury on the first day of practice.
The Bulldogs’ run defense should get tested by Georgia Southern, the nation’s top-ranked rushing offense the last two years.
Tailback Jermaine Austin rushed for 1,461 yards, averaging 6.5 per carry, en route to Southern Conference Offensive Player of the Year honors last season. Senior quarterback Chaz Williams won that award the previous season and is also a major threat on the ground.
The Eagles went 7-4 last year and finished third in the conference.
Georgia has won 14 straight home games and has won the only two meetings it has had with Georgia Southern, 34-7 in 1992 and 29-7 in 2000.