ATHENS, Ga. -- Between signing autographs and posing for pictures at the annual UGA Countdown to Kickoff, ESPN’s Matt Stinchcomb put on his analyst hat for a few minutes Saturday to discuss his alma mater’s prospects in the upcoming football season.
Stinchcomb, an All-America offensive lineman at Georgia in 1997 and 1998, does not put much stock in preseason polls, but believes the Bulldogs are an obvious candidate for a top-10 ranking before the season begins.
“Because of the system that we have in place, it’s important to be in proximity. You’ve got to be in striking distance of those top two spots [in the polls],” said Stinchcomb, who helps organize the Countdown to Kickoff, which raises funds to benefit children’s health charities including Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta and the Georgia Transplant Foundation, with his brother Jon and former Bulldogs quarterback David Greene. “We’ve learned that through the past 14 years. So in that regard, it means something.
“But on paper, this is a top-five football team. I can see that. I think part of what goes into preseason polls is how these prognosticators think you’re going to do in the season, and when you look at the schedule and you look at the team that Georgia has coming back, you have every reason to believe that this is at least a 10-, maybe an 11- or 12-win team.”
After a 10-4 season and an SEC East title last fall, the Bulldogs are among the preseason favorites to contend for division and conference championships this season. The top factor in that status is that nine starters return from a defense that ranked among the nation’s best in 2011.
“I think you should be confident of the defensive side of the football,” Stinchcomb said. “Now they’re going to have to establish some depth it seems, particularly in the secondary. I think they have the right pieces where even if there are some areas that they have to concede, they should be all right.”
The main area of concern from Stinchcomb’s vantage point is the offensive line, particularly the position he played in college and in the NFL -- offensive tackle. After losing center Ben Jones and tackles Cordy Glenn and Justin Anderson to the NFL, Georgia needs to find answers at those key positions.
“The area of concern is and has been -- for it seems like the past however many years -- the offensive line,” he said. “That’s due to any number of factors, but the bottom line is they really can’t afford to lose much. It seems like we’ve said that for a bunch of years now.”
Stinchcomb admits he has not seen much of the candidates to fill those key spots on the line, although he has a pretty good excuse. No player on Georgia’s roster has started a college game at tackle or center -- hence the concern related to those positions.
Freshman John Theus could contend for a starting spot on the line, although conventional wisdom dictates that offensive line is one of the toughest places for a true freshman to start. Glenn and Jones did it, as did Clint Boling and Trinton Sturdivant during the Bulldogs’ Sugar Bowl season in 2007, so it’s not impossible. But Stinchcomb would like to see some of the incumbent linemen play well enough to prevent Theus from facing too much early pressure to perform.
“We’ve seen freshmen come in and play at a very high level, but it’s very rare. [Sturdivant] was a special player,” Stinchcomb said. “If that’s what’s needed for this season, then it might take that. It might take a special freshman to step in. Then again, it might not. There are some guys that I think could be able to fill the void where you can allow a freshman to develop, but offensive front I think is the question mark and the thin area.”
This is the seventh year that the Stinchcombs and Greene have helped stage the Countdown to Kickoff series of events, including a golf day, Saturday’s fan festival and a silent auction that will be held in August. Stinchcomb said the events have raised approximately $750,000 for the children’s charities and should hit the $1 million milestone in two years.
“The common thread through all that is kids -- kids that need help, kids that need healthcare in some form or fashion,” he said. “So it’s about as meaningful and impactful a cause as I think you could probably conjure up.”
Dozens of current and former Georgia players -- including current NFL performers Ben Jones, Brandon Boykin and Kris Durham -- attended Saturday’s festivities to sign autographs and pose for pictures, which is another point of pride for Stinchcomb.
“I think it substantiates the idea of the whole 'Bulldog Nation' and Georgia family. I think a lot of schools say that and I think a lot of schools would like to have that, but I think this is just one way that demonstrates that it’s real here,” Stinchcomb said. “These guys are here voluntarily. These former players are here on their own free time and they bring their families. … We’re appreciative that they’re willing to do it, but we’re not surprised. There’s a lot of good guys who have come through this program.”