Georgia worthy of high expectations — but proceed with caution

Ready? Prepare yourselves because it’s going to build.

Georgia is going to deliver a backhand to the cute little team from Nicholls State (and a prize off the top shelf to the first person who can locate the school on a map). Then they are going to Missouri to win their first SEC game, and the Bulldogs will be 3-0 and everybody is going to ask: Is this the year?

Because that’s what happens in sports, and that’s especially what happens in all manners of obsession around Georgia football.

We are forever teased. Georgia had a nice run under coach Mark Richt, who took over a wounded program and won two SEC championships in his first five years at a school that hadn’t won a title in 20. Then he never won another. Seasons with big wins were derailed by bigger losses. It was time for a change.

Now here comes Kirby Smart, getting people excited, mandating accountability and a new standard at a program that he has long believed housed entitled athletes (his words), and here comes Georgia’s opening win over North Carolina in a packed Georgia Dome on national television, and here comes Nick Chubb rushing 32 times for 222 yards and two touchdowns in his first game after a catastrophic knee injury 11 months earlier.

So when do we jump?

I wrote a few times before this season that Smart’s ability to quickly implement his program, the play of his defense and the Bulldogs’ running game will go further toward defining Georgia’s season — and overall future — than the play of the quarterback(s). I still believe that, daily obsessions over the Jacob Eason/Greyson Lambert practice snap counts notwithstanding.

And yes – here goes: This has the potential to be a special season for Georgia. Tennessee’s near flop vs. Appalachian State reaffirmed the SEC East is there for the taking. Winning the East would mean getting into the conference championship game and therefore being in the playoff picture.

But hold on.

Smart grew up in south Georgia, he played in Athens and he’s coaching in his third SEC program (Georgia, Alabama, LSU). So he understands the challenges of runaway expectations, and it figured his weekly news conference would start something like this:

“It’s time to move on,” he said Monday.

And then: “You went to sleep thinking you played well. Then you watch the tape and you’re sick to your stomach because there are so many things we did wrong that we need to improve on.”

Thank you, Nick.

Smart’s not wrong. The backdrop in Athens mandates caution. And Advil.

Remember last season? Georgia won its first four games and climbed to No. 8 in the rankings. Then Alabama strolled into Sanford Stadium – you could almost hear the Darth Vader marching music playing in the background – and swatted away the Bulldogs 38-10 in some bad flashback of the 2008 “Blackout” game.

Remember 2014? The Dogs bodyslammed Clemson 45-21 to open the season. They leaped to sixth in the rankings. A week later, presumably still admiring themselves, they lost in Columbia to a South Carolina team that would finish 3-5 in the SEC.

Remember 2012, the 35-7 smackdown by South Carolina that followed a 5-0 start and a No. 5 ranking?

Remember 2008? The Dogs were pre-season No. 1, won their first five and had stirred the masses into a frenzy, until Alabama burned down their crops, stole their cows and wiped their feet on those black jerseys. (And remember the 49-10 loss to Florida that followed?)

Remember 2006. There was another 5-0 start against lightweights that inflated perceptions. Ensuing losses to Tennessee, Vanderbilt, Florida and Kentucky – Kentucky! – made a No. 10 ranking look like a punchline.

So, yeah. Take a breath.

Georgia’s defense is still a work in progress. It’s easy to see why Smart wanted Maurice Smith from Alabama to help the secondary, but depth on the defensive line may be a season long issue.

Eason will be starting over Lambert before long. He’s going to suffer through some freshman moments. But if Georgia can run block like it did in the opener, Chubb stays healthy and Sony Michel and a cast of others can provide support in the running game, that will limit his exposure.

Smart is still an unknown as a coach, but the unknown can be a positive. There’s no baggage from past failures and therefore no perceived limit on the possibilities.

Rankings don’t carry the significance they used to but they feed perceptions. The Dogs, ranked 18th before the North Carolina game, are expected to climb a handful of spots in the updated poll, which is due out today. Big wins led by a Heisman Trophy candidate will do that.

Get ready. It’s going to build. It always does.

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