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Margin for error is thinner than ever for Bulldogs

College football season will get under way Thursday night, Sept. 3, with a smattering of games, including South Carolina at N.C. State on ESPN.

On the way home from Orlando after the Capital One Bowl on New Year's night, my wife was the first to ask: "What kind of team will we have next year?"

By "we," she of course meant the Georgia Bulldogs. I have been asked that question many times since, just like every year for the past 30. You see, for Football Fans Raised in the South, the season never goes away. For Georgia Bulldog fans, worrying season runs 24-7-365.

The Georgia Bulldogs, like every season since Coach Mark Richt's arrival in 2001, will have a chance to have a good season. The margin for error between good and great is thinner than ever for Georgia because of the tremendous success of the Florida Gators. Remember, last season's 10-3 record was considered a bummer because it included a humiliating loss to Florida as well as showing up for only one half against Alabama and Georgia Tech.

Georgia's biggest concern is not replacing Matthew Stafford, Knowshon Moreno and Mohammed Massaquoi, but in regaining some pride on defense and just becoming an overall tougher football team. At times last year, even in some of the wins, the Bulldogs were manhandled -- and frightfully, appeared to like it. In reality, the offense last year was tougher than the defense.

In today's college football, a defense will seldom go out and totally shut down even a lesser-talented team. With the plethora of spread offenses and dual-threat quarterbacks, playing defense is almost like defending 12 men.

With Georgia's schedule, I don't expect the defense not to give up some points. I do expect the defense to be fundamentally improved and at least punish the opponent throughout the game. I hope to see a mentality of "you may cross our goal line, but we'll make you earn it and hit you hard on the way."

Improvement on defense will be the key for the Bulldogs in 2009. Georgia must find a way not to give up yards and points at warp speed like they did at times last year. They can't expect to average more than 30 points a game and win 10 games again without a greater contribution from the defense.

Georgia Tech won nine and lost four last year, and unless there are some surprises in their schedule, I surely don't see them doing any worse than that this year. Paul Johnson is building a solid program and his triple-option offense gave everybody except LSU fits a year ago.

The key to Tech's having similar success may be the health of their quarterbacks. Josh Nesbitt is a tough kid but their backup, Jaybo Shaw, has already broken his collarbone and could miss the first handful of games. I don't see Tech making it through the season without the need for at least two very competent quarterbacks. They had to depend on both Nesbitt and Shaw last year, and as long as they run an offense where the quarterback gets hit on every play even when he doesn't have the ball, that won't change.

Down in Statesboro, I fear for Georgia Southern coach Chris Hatcher's job security. It is not because I think he is doing a poor job, nor do I really know much about the Eagles. A very young team last year went 6-5, including four games in overtime, three of them victories. In Hatcher's first season at the helm, Southern went 7-4 in 2007.

Georgia Southern football will always be measured by NCAA Football Championship Division playoff success. Athletic Director Sam Baker pulled the trigger on former coach Mike Sewak in 2005 after the Eagles lost in round one of the playoffs. Sewak had an overall record of 35-14 and made the playoffs in three of his four years as head coach.

Merely having a winning record is not good enough on the banks of beautiful Eagle Creek. If Georgia Southern does not make the playoffs, Hatcher's finding himself on the hot seat around Thanksgiving would not surprise me.

Web posted on Thursday, August 20, 2009

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