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SEC photo by Jimmie Mitchell / Georgia football coach Kirby Smart has compiled a 44-9 record the past four seasons and is looking for a more connected team this season following last year's limitations due to the coronavirus.

HOOVER, Ala. — Will Georgia avenge its loss to Florida in Jacksonville this October and reclaim the top spot in the Southeastern Conference's Eastern Division?

Is this the year the Bulldogs defeat Alabama for the first time since 2007 should those teams meet? Is Georgia mere months away from its first national championship since 1980?

Expectations are as high as ever for a program on a 44-9 run the past four seasons, but sixth-year coach Kirby Smart doesn't have time for them in late July.

"I'm too busy working," Smart said Tuesday at SEC Media Days. "I'm too busy trying to do the next thing. I'm too busy trying to take the next step to give our team a competitive advantage to really worry about expectations. That's usually what people want to know about, but for me, I'm too busy working to worry about that."

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The Bulldogs have plenty of necessary pieces returning and added another stout signing class in order to produce a magical year, with last season's 8-2 record reflecting a slight dip that included having to be television viewers instead of participants at the SEC championship game. Smart already has been angling for a tighter group after the limitations last year that accompanied the coronavirus outbreak.

"When you're on a Zoom with somebody, it's hard to have a connection," Smart said. "When you're not allowed to sit within six feet of somebody, it's hard to have a connection. We had some players that didn't get to meet and know everybody on the team throughout the season because so much was done through Zoom and different methods of communication, so connection is one of the key ingredients for this team.

"We have been very intentional about it. We've given up football time. We've given up workout time to spend more time with each other, and that's beginning to pay off as we see it here in the summer with guys getting in front of the group and leading skill sessions and being very active."

Bulldogs players certainly seem to be embracing the bonding sessions, which are apparently far superior compared to discussing preseason projections.

"I definitely think the key to a successful team is a cohesive team," senior defensive lineman Jordan Davis said. "We need to know the brother beside us. I always say, if you can't trust the person next to you, then you won't be willing to play your heart out for them. I take that to full effect."

Said junior quarterback JT Daniels: "The preseason rankings are what they are. We don't have any say over them. It's cool when they say you're good. It's cool when they say you suck. You just go out and play football."

 

Bulldogs bites

More than 85% of Georgia's team is vaccinated, according to Smart, who added, "Our drive is to get to 100%, so we're not there yet." ... Smart said that junior receiver George Pickens (ACL) is running in a straight line but is "still a ways away" from being cleared. ... Fellow junior receiver Dominick Blaylock (ACL) is doing a lot of drill work but has not been cleared for contact. ... Yet another junior receiver, Kearis Jackson, recently underwent minor knee surgery and should be available by the start of preseason camp. ... Georgia this season will recognize the 50-year anniversary of the program's first five Black players — Horace King, Clarence Pope, Larry West, Richard Appleby and Chuck Kinnebrew.

 

Second to Saban

Kentucky football coach Mark Stoops ranks second to Alabama's Nick Saban in league longevity.

Stoops has a 49-50 record through eight seasons, with his first three years yielding a 12-24 mark and his last five having ended with bowl appearances. The Wildcats went 10-3 in 2018, reaching 10 wins for the first time since 1977.

"I said it when I got to Kentucky that we were going to recruit, we were going to develop and we were going to compete," Stoops said. "I wanted to take this program to national prominence, and people laughed at me. We're not there yet, but we're on our way.

"I'm going to continue to work. I feel good about where we're at."

 

No expansion

Kentucky's run of four consecutive winning seasons ended last year when the Wildcats went 4-6 in their COVID-adjusted 10-game schedule against league opposition before eclipsing North Carolina State 23-21 in the Gator Bowl.

Stoops was asked Tuesday whether he was in favor of the league moving to nine conference games from its usual eight.

"I wonder if people watched last year," he said. "There were quite a few people who struggled, if anybody took notice of that, so that's how I feel."

 

Kiffin blown away

Ole Miss coach Lane Kiffin was staggered during his time at the podium Tuesday by news that Alabama sophomore quarterback Bryce Young already has NIL deals approaching $1 million, according to Saban.

"That number just blew me away," Kiffin said. "You didn't prepare me for that. That's amazing. He made a million dollars and hasn't started a game yet?

"Wow, I don't even know how to respond to that, but great for him."

Contact David Paschall at dpaschall@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6524.

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