Is UGA’s run of underachieving about to cease?

Our media bus was bound from Newport Beach to the Rose Bowl for the final BCS title game. Two journalists seated behind me were discussing the 2014 season, then more than eight months away. We’d just exited the 605 onto the 210 when I overhead this:

Journalist No. 1: “What about Georgia?”

Journalist No. 2 (scoffing): “Every year, Georgia is the most overrated team in the country.”

I filed that snippet of conversation. I’ve since checked its veracity. In 13 seasons under Mark Richt, Georgia has outperformed its preseason Associated Press ranking six times, undershot six times and matched it once. On its face, that wouldn’t fit the profile of a perennial underachiever.

But wait. Only once since 2007 — the year Georgia rose from No. 13 in preseason to No. 2 in the final poll — have the Bulldogs fared better than AP voters expected. (That was in 2012, when they were picked sixth and finished fifth.) Three times in five years, they were tabbed in the Top 25 and wound up unranked. That would seem a pattern of underachieving.

To dispense with the usual objections: Yes, preseason polls are notoriously unreliable — Auburn was unranked last August and came within 14 seconds of taking the BCS title in Pasadena — and are, by definition, based on perception. And yes, mitigating circumstances can and do arise. A bunch of Bulldogs got hurt in 2013, which was largely why a team ranked No. 5 in August finished 8-5 and out of the Top 25.

Still, of Richt’s first 13 recruiting classes, nine ranked among Rivals’ top 10. (So did the 14th, which just arrived on campus.) Five Richt teams have finished in the AP top 10, only one since 2007. Is that a suitable return? Then again, Rivals rankings are dominated by SEC teams, so it’s not as if the opposition is a collection of weaklings. And the higher you start — the Bulldogs were ranked 15th or better in 10 of Richt’s first 13 seasons — the harder it is to outperform.

Enough quibbling. What’s beyond dispute is that Georgia fared better, performance-wise, in the first half of Richt’s tenure than in the second. Five of his first seven teams bettered their preseason ranking. The pivot point was 2008, when the Bulldogs entered the season ranked No. 1 but finished No. 13. The genesis of the Georgia-is-always-overrated notion lies there.

The 2008 Bulldogs suffered two beatings — the Blackout night against Alabama and the 49-10 thrashing by Florida — that made them appear not just overrated but overmatched. Similar games have dotted the seasons since. True, the 2012 Bulldogs came within five yards of a BCS title date with Notre Dame; they were also beaten 35-7 by South Carolina in October. No eventual national champion has ever lost a game by 28 points.

Every so often, Georgia authors the sort of howler that makes pundits say, “Why exactly were we ever high on these guys?” Contrast this with Alabama, which didn’t lose a game by more than a touchdown from Oct. 9, 2010, until the Sugar Bowl this January.

This in mind, should we expect the season ahead to yield more Georgia underachievement? Not necessarily. The Bulldogs are No. 12 in both major preseason polls, which isn’t a terrible place to be. They’re on the radar but not flying so high that expectations are immense. They were picked second to South Carolina in the East by the SEC media, which isn’t a bad thing, either.

Back to 2013: The season was an oddity in that it didn’t feature a wipeout loss. Four of the five defeats were one-score affairs, and the fifth — against Missouri in October — was a one-point game with 10 minutes left. A slew of injuries and some lousy luck undid a hugely promising autumn. Given better health and kinder fortune, the season ahead could be much sweeter.

Even without Aaron Murray, the offense should be very good. The defense should be better. The schedule isn’t exactly onerous. At worst, Georgia should be favored in 10 games. It would be a great surprise to this media-bus rider, if not to certain of my fellow travelers, if these Bulldogs don’t finish higher than No. 12.