ATLANTA (AP) — Georgia has always carried itself with the swagger of a powerhouse football program.
You know, the kind that contends for a national title just about every season, and wins one every now and then.
Like all those schools around them.
Well, this might be the team that finally brings reality in line with the lofty expectations between the hedges. In Kirby Smart's second season as coach, Georgia has won its first eight games — all but one by at least three touchdowns , with the only exception being an impressive 20-19 victory at Notre Dame — and claimed the No. 1 spot in the first College Football Playoff rankings .
How 'Bout Them Dawgs!
Before we get ahead of ourselves, Georgia still has four games left in the regular season — including, most ominously, a road trip to No. 16 Auburn — and a probable showdown with Nick Saban and the Alabama Crimson Tide (which sits atop the Associated Press poll) for the Southeastern Conference championship.
That matchup, in all likelihood, will serve as play-in game to the four-team playoff.
But, hey, we'll let the Bulldogs' long-suffering fans savor the moment.
They've waited nearly a decade to see a "1'' beside their team's name — and much, much longer to have a real reason to celebrate.
"It's human nature when you've been wanting something really bad for a long time and you've seen your neighbors doing it, you get that much more excited when you see that potential in front of you," former Georgia linebacker Frank Ros said when reached at his suburban Atlanta home Friday. "Kirby is doing a great job making sure the players understand that, hey, this is just part of what we've got to do."
Ros knows what it takes to get to the top.
He was the captain of Georgia's only national championship team, way back in 1980.
This team, Ros said, is cut from a similar cloth.
"There are some common denominators," he explained. "One, a very strong running game . Two, a swarming defense that's playing very disciplined right now." And three, several players passing on a chance to enter this year's NFL draft left these Bulldogs with a strong senior class.
"On that '80 team, one of our biggest assets was the strength of our senior leadership," Ros recalled.
It's always been a bit of mystery why the Bulldogs never followed up with a few more titles.
They occupy one of the most bountiful states in the country for high school talent. They play to packed houses in one of college football's most hallowed grounds, hedge-lined, 92,000-seat Sanford Stadium. They are bankrolled by one of the wealthiest athletic programs in the country. They don't have to contend with a major in-state rival (sorry, Georgia Tech, but you're in a different league when it comes to resources and facilities).
There have been a few close calls along the way, most recently in 2012 when the Bulldogs came up 5 yards shy of beating Alabama in the SEC title game and likely playing for the BCS championship . Instead, it was the Crimson Tide that finished No. 1 with a 42-14 rout of Notre Dame, a team that Georgia surely would've beaten by a similar margin.
Alabama now has four national titles over the last eight years, which is hard enough for the Bulldogs to stomach.
But their envy runs deeper.
Clemson, about 75 miles from Athens just across the South Carolina border, is the reigning national champion. The Tigers knocked off Alabama in last season's title game when Georgia native Deshaun Watson threw a winning touchdown pass with 1 second remaining.
Auburn, the Bulldogs' longest-running rivalry, won the national title in 2010 led by another Georgia native, Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback Cam Newton. When the Tigers reached the title game again in 2013, it was with Nick Marshall — yep, he's from Georgia, too — running the offense.
Florida, the team the Bulldogs face each season in the "World's Largest Outdoor Cocktail Party," won a pair of national titles in 2006 and 2008 under Urban Meyer, sandwiched around a championship for another SEC school, LSU, just to rub a little more salt in Georgia's wounds.
"We're a passionate state with great athletes," Ros said. "It's tough chasing that goal when you're seeing the states next to you winning all these championships."
That frustration manifested itself after the 2015 season, when Mark Richt was dumped after 15 seasons as the coach, even though he won nearly 75 percent of his games and a pair of SEC championships.
Ten-win seasons (Richt had nine of 'em) weren't good enough anymore.
It's still early, but Smart certainly has Georgia on the right track. He brought in one of the nation's top recruiting classes this year, a group that included quarterback Jake Fromm, who took over the starting job in the very first game when Jacob Eason was injured (and left a now-healthy Eason on the sideline, playing the role of Wally Pipp). The Bulldogs are already on their way to another stellar group in 2018 with commitments from two of the country's top prospects, quarterback Justin Fields and running back Zamir White.
After serving as Saban's defensive coordinator, Smart is trying to build everything in the image of his former boss, right down to moving Georgia's weekly media day to Monday from its traditional spot on Tuesday.
Now, all he needs is a championship.
In these parts, nothing else will do.
Paul Newberry is a sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at email@example.com or at www.twitter.com/pnewberry1963 . His work can be found at https://apnews.com/search/paul%20newberry
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