Monday, September 1
You've got to start somewhere.
Right off the top of my head, I can only remember one time -- the South Carolina game, 2003 -- when I've gone up to Athens expecting to be able to secure a ticket to a game but ended up empty-handed. As of this past Saturday, though, there are two. Tickets to the Georgia Southern game -- Georgia Southern, people -- were going for prices I haven't seen in years, maybe ever. Usually I'm accustomed to walking around campus an hour or so before game time and seeing characters of varying degrees of shadiness walking around with fistfuls of tickets, but on Saturday they were outnumbered three-to-one by the people holding nothing in the air but fingers, and the people who had tickets to sell weren't letting them go for anything less than $125, even mere minutes before kickoff. Georgia fans, welcome to High Expectations, population you: Nobody gets a glimpse of the number-one team in the country for cheap these days, even when all they're doing is folding their laundry.
Well, Georgia Southern wasn't quite as easy to take care of as laundry, but it didn't appear to be that much harder, either, not by the time the Dawgs ran up a 38-0 lead midway through the third quarter. That score by itself didn't give an entirely accurate picture of the game thus far -- Georgia, as is their custom in these types of games, got several scores off of short drives thanks to turnovers and/or nice special-teams plays, while Southern didn't completely roll over and die right away, managing a couple nice drives into Georgia's red zone that came up empty. But if that score was a little deceiving, then so was the final, with Southern's late scoring flurry (three TDs in the final 20 minutes) coming against a Georgia team by then composed mostly of second- and third-stringers.
So I guess you could say the final score ended up being every bit as ho-hum as I predicted it would be, if not more so, but there was a lot to like, or at least get excited about, in Georgia's performance. Caleb King and Knowshon Moreno look like they're going to be a fine tandem in the backfield, together averaging 7.7 yards per carry; Stafford only got sacked once, and his scrambling ability nearly got him back to the line of scrimmage and saved it from being a sack at all; and while the defense was guilty of the usual raft of dumb procedural penalties you'd expect in the first game of the season, they still held Southern to 290 total yards, at least 180 of those coming late in the game after Richt started pulling people off the bench. Then there was rookie kicker Blair Walsh, who only got one field-goal opportunity but made it count -- a successful 52-yarder at the end of a drive where Georgia had set themselves up in great field position but hadn't been able to go anywhere with it. I don't know what it's like inside the mind of a kicker, and from what I've heard I probably don't want to, but that's got to be a confidence-builder for a kid attempting only his second meaningful placekick in a Georgia uniform, and the crowd responded accordingly.
Nothing, however, caused a bigger cheer to rise up out of the beer-soaked, air-conditioned confines of the Georgia Theatre than the crowning (collaring?) of Uga VII as the latest in our proud line of mascots. Well, maybe one thing: true freshman A.J. Green's first reception as a Georgia Bulldog, the 36-yard rocket from Stafford that set up Georgia's first score. Yeah, I know, it was only Georgia Southern, but if you're a Georgia fan you've been waiting years to see a hookup as clean as that one: Stafford spotted him almost immediately over the middle and threw it maybe just an eensy bit high, but certainly not high enough that Green couldn't get it, because he hopped into the air a little, in stride -- and if you could've paused the game at that moment it would've looked like the beginning of those old Warner Brothers cartoons where they'd freeze-frame Road Runner over the caption "Road Runner (Speedius maximus)" or something -- and took the ball out of the sky as calmly as if he were selecting a box of cereal off the top shelf at Publix. It's too early to call him the game-breaking receiver Georgia fans have been pining for, but he at least looks like he's interested in the job.
The one big problem that needs to be addressed, of course, has nothing to do with the actual play on the field but rather someone who evidently won't be playing on the field for the rest of this season, and that's Jeff Owens, the DT who's one of my favorite Georgia players and probably the most experienced player on the defense. He's gone for the rest of the season thanks to an ACL tear, and it really sucks that it had to happen in a game that was as meaningless in the final accounting as this one was. Over the course of the Mark Richt era, fans have gotten accustomed to some incredible depth on defense (recall that last year's D only had three starters returning, and Paul Oliver was one of them); I guess we'll find out how much depth we have over the course of the next few games. By itself, Owens's injury isn't necessarily a season-killer any more than Trinton Sturdivant's was on the other side of the ball, but to have those both occurring within a few weeks of each other . . . well, God owes us a Coke at this point, at the very least.
So it wasn't a perfect day in the game-playing, ticket-getting, game-watching or not-getting-hurt departments, but we won, we didn't do anything that would horrify the people who'd voted us #1 in the country, and perhaps most importantly, I get to experience gameday in Athens once again. If tickets don't get cheaper anytime soon, that may be the only thing I end up experiencing, but I'll take it.
· Atlantic Coast Conference, time of death, 11:35 p.m. Saturday. With N.C. State starting the new season Thursday night in exactly the same fashion that they'd finished the last one, Virginia Tech getting embarrassed in Charlotte by a team whose top goal coming into this season was making it to the Conference USA title game, and Clemson lapping the rest of the field in the Worst Way for a Top-10 Team to Start Their Season Award, the ACC's biggest accomplishment on opening weekend was Wake Forest going down to Waco, Texas, and slugging the worst team in the Big 12. I don't think it's too early to declare the ACC's hopes to claim superconference status already dead for yet another year; I do think it's too early to declare Clemson this year's version of Tennessee '05, but all the pieces are there: lofty preseason ranking, glare of bright lights glinting off shiny offensive skill players blinding people to deficiencies on the lines, unable-to-rise-to-the-occasion coaching, too much orange . . . In a roundabout way, the well-documented habit of performing best when expectations are low -- which killed them Sarurday night -- might be their best hope now, because expectations don't get much lower than they are for the Tigers at this point.
The thing is, starting the Tommy Bowden Death Clock would still be a little premature even after that loss, because they've still got a shot at an ACC title. But that title just went from a should-win to a must-win for Bowden, because while a BCS berth is the kind of thing that can make you forget about a season-opening ass-kicking at the hands of what everyone thought would be a midpack SEC team, a Peach Bowl isn't, and that's the best postseason gift the Tigers have managed to secure for themselves in nine seasons under Bowden's care. Even before the drubbing under the Georgia Dome, though, I thought the margin between Clemson and the next-best team in the conference, Wake Forest, was razor-thin; now, to my way of thinking, Wake has become the favorite to win the league title. Which, after Wake's thrilling 9-6 win in the 2006 championship game, is something that I'm sure thrills the ACC Powers That Be to no end.
· Not that every single team in the SEC necessarily came out smelling like a rose -- Bobby Petrino and Sylvester Croom, in particular, have some 'splaining to do this morning -- but the upper-echelon teams all took care of business, with most of the few remaining question marks belonging to Auburn. No, nobody's going to be too embarrassed by a 34-0 win, but Tony Franklin's pass-happy offense didn't look the least bit happy passing, and the Tigers aren't just going to be able to shrug their shoulders and drop 321 rushing yards on someone once conference play starts. Wasn't Franklin's spread system -- the version he implemented at Troy, anyway -- supposed to be based around short, high-percentage passes? And what does it say about Auburn's two QBs that they were collectively under .500 in hitting those? I'm not too humble to say I've been a lot more skeptical than most people seemed to be about Auburn's prospects this year under two new coordinators, and while you can't draw too many conclusions from one game, particularly when it's ULM, the Tigers only have one more game for the light bulb to go on. Then they enter a three-week gauntlet of Mississippi State, LSU, and Tennessee, any one of which has a defense capable of making Auburn regret putting a one-dimensional offense on the field.
Two whole offensive touchdowns! Yeah, I totally meant to do that.
· Other than that, not many surprises Saturday -- Pittsburgh's and Texas A&M's losses to Bowling Green and Arkansas State, respectively, were probably the biggest upsets of the weekend other than the ones already mentioned, but I can honestly say I wasn't on Pitt's bandwagon to begin with, nor did I think A&M looked particularly talented coming into this season. The Aggies, in particular, are going to have a hell of a time this year -- if they can't get past Arkansas State, then they're going to be a light snack for Oklahoma, Texas, and Texas Tech, probably even Oklahoma State. Somehow I think "battling with Baylor for fifth place in the division" is not what they had in mind when they hired Mike Sherman last year.
· As for the picks that I inflicted on the world last week via Dr. Saturday's blog . . . well, Temple did blow Army off the field on Friday night, and Southern Cal turned out to be the right pick for the "lead-pipe cinch" category in destroying Virginia 52-7, but none of the other picks were kind enough to stand up for me, the most egregious errors being FAU's 52-10 loss to Texas (so much for thinking the Owls were ready to put up a respectable performance against a BCS-conference opponent) and, of course, Clemson's evisceration in the Georgia Dome. I've already received word that police found a note attached to a body that plummeted off the 54th floor of the Westin Peachtree Plaza early Sunday morning, and it read, "Screw you, Mr. Hey Jenny Slater guy, for making me think it was OK to BET MY HOUSE on Clemson minus five and a half." For that reason, Dr. Saturday informs me that we're going to be "retooling" my picks column going forward so that stuff like this doesn't happen in the future.
· UAB Blazers watch: Shockingly, UAB actually led Tulsa, the defending C-USA Western Division and GMAC Bowl champs, 22-21 at the half; then the wheels came off and the Golden Hurricane scored 24 unanswered points after the break. Personally, with an actual hurricane potentially poised to batter the Alabama coast even as I write this, that was a horribly insensitive thing to do. Tulsa, you ought to be ashamed of yourselves.
Very classy, Tulsa. I suppose you think this is funny?
· Wofford Terriers watch: The mighty Terriers started slow against Presbyterian on Saturday, but got in gear in the second quarter to beat the Blue Hose 38-21. Yes, Prebyterian's mascot is the Blue Hose, which begs all sorts of questions: Is it hose like a garden hose, or hose like stockings? If it's the latter, whose are they, and why is she so important that her underthings get to be the mascot for an entire football team? Either way, Presbyterian, that's a dumb mascot, and you ought to be ashamed of yourselves for bringing that weak-ass shit onto the same field that hosted the best mascot in I-AA. Of course, maybe I just misread Presbyterian's ESPN page and their mascot is actually the Blue Hose, in which case they're still not as good as the Terriers but get their Mascot Coolness Meter moved a couple notches over toward Awesome just the same.
· The Cheerleader Curse Watch officially begins next week -- technically the most recent Cheerleader of the Week on SI.com was this chick from Arizona, but clearly a preseason CotW pick has no effect whatsoever. But now that the regular season has started, I'm confident that future CotW selections -- for the next of which I'm nominating one of these lovely young ladies -- will be crushing their teams' hopes and dreams right on schedule.