HOOVER, Ala. — An excited Tennessee football fan, a rare species inside the expansive Wynfrey Hotel lobby for almost a decade, was spotted Tuesday. She was a Joshua Dobbs jersey-wearing loyalist staking out position early hoping to get an autograph from the Volunteers’ quarterback at SEC Media Days.
And maybe, just maybe, catch a glimpse of head coach Butch Jones, the man who has lifted Tennessee back into popular SEC East beast status.
Whether or not the Vols are picked to win the division in SEC Media Days voting Thursday, one thing is clear: Georgia, frequently favored, is seen as anything but a lock in an SEC East known for parity and parody.
Which is great for the Bulldogs.
Mark Richt was run out of Athens for not living up to expectations. While new head coach Kirby Smart might eventually find it hard to replace the classy Richt, first impressions carry. The opportunity to overachieve within the SEC East doesn’t come around often at Georgia.
Just know Georgia thinks powerhouse running back Nick Chubb and his freakishly athletic 5-10, 220-pound body will be ready for the season opener against North Carolina after almost a year of knee rehab. Chubb’s steady progress is ahead of schedule, with added emphasis since backup running back Sony Michel broke a forearm in an ATV accident on July 3.
“Who would have thought they would both be rehabbing?” Smart said. “Ultimately, (Chubb) has to regain confidence in that knee.”
Consider that freshman quarterback 6-5, 211-pound Jacob Eason dazzled fans Between The Hedges during the Bulldogs’ spring game, completing 19 of 29 passes for 244 yards and a touchdown, while the rest of his classmates at Lake Stevens (Wash.) High School were pondering prom stuff. Thanks, Mark Richt, for doing the little things, like flying from Athens to Seattle the night of last November’s victory over Auburn to surprise Eason on a Sunday morning.
Remember, Smart comes with the Nick Saban seal of approval after serving under Saban a LSU, the Miami Dolphins and at Alabama from 2007-2015.
“You never leave what you learn,” said Smart, a 40-year-old former Georgia defensive back who has also worked under Richt and Bobby Bowden. “What you have success with you feel comfortable with, you always rely on that a little bit.”
Georgia lost some good coaches along with Richt; Saban plucked defensive coordinator Jeremy Pruitt to replace Smart. But the Bulldogs ranked No. 7 in the nation in defense in 2015 and All-SEC free safety Dominick Sanders is part of a secondary that returns intact.
“The biggest concern I have is our defensive line,” Smart said. “We have to develop and stay injury free.”
Can Tennessee handle success?
The 2015 Vols had Oklahoma beat in Knoxville but lost in double-overtime, let SEC East champ Florida slip by with a 28-27 victory and lost at home to Arkansas, 24-20.
An impressive 19-14 loss at Alabama followed by a six-game win streak to end a 9-4 season, that’s what people are thinking about this summer. But the only foe with a winning record over that stretch was Northwestern, ambushed 45-6 in the Outback Bowl.
Tennessee hasn’t been in an SEC Championship Game since 2007, Phillip Fulmer’s second-to-last season as head coach. A team led by Arian Foster, Jerod Mayo and Eric Berry lost, 21-14, to eventual national champion LSU. Fulmer was forced out after going 5-7 in 2008.
While the recent unpleasantness of the Lane Kiffin and Derek Dooley eras were hard on Rocky Top, Tennessee’s 4-11 slump against Georgia from 2000-2014 pre-dated Fulmer’s departure. It included “The Hobnail Boot” game in 2001 — “We just stepped on their face with a hobnail boot and broke their nose!” the late Larry Munson told Georgia radio listeners after David Greene’s game-winning touchdown pass to Verron Haynes with six seconds left. “We just crushed their face!.”
Thus that joy last October as the Vols snapped a five-game Georgia win streak with a 38-31 victory.
Now Georgia is one of ESPN’s “sleeper” teams for 2016.
How convenient going into a probable battle with Tennessee.
“We both have a lot of confidence,” Sanders said. “We both have a lot to prove.”
This year’s Georgia-Tennessee game is in Athens on Oct. 1. If Chubb isn’t ready for North Carolina, he should feel better a month later as Smart’s “Attack the Day” motto takes hold. Georgia might not even need a hobnail boot.
Follow Gene Sapakoff on Twitter @sapakoff