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July 24, 2008

Georgia hopes to avoid looking ahead

MORE SEC MEDIA DAYS: Georgia-Florida rivalry at new heights? | Day Two Photo Gallery

BIRMINGHAM, Ala. They're a national title contender entering the season with a star-studded offense, heightened expectations and a traditional Division I-AA power as their first opponent.

Georgia in 2008?

Nope. We're talking about Michigan in 2007.

Georgia is trying to remain focused amid an avalanche of preseason hype by remembering the fate of last season's Michigan team. The Wolverines opened ranked fifth in the country, but they lost their opener to Appalachian State and finished a disappointing 9-4.

"We can't listen to the hype or the media," senior defensive tackle Jeff Owens said Thursday during SEC Media Days at the Wynfrey Hotel. "Guys get big heads. We don't want to end up like Michigan was last year, losing to App State. We've just got to learn from their mistake."

Owens' comments illustrate the approach Georgia is taking to the excitement that has surrounded this program throughout the offseason. The Bulldogs return 14 starters from a team that ended last season No. 2 in The Associated Press poll after winning their last seven games, including a 41-10 Sugar Bowl thumping of Hawaii.

Georgia should earn its highest preseason ranking since 1942, when the Bulldogs opened No. 2 and went on to win their first national championship.

"I think everyone's looking at the national championship as a realistic goal," senior wide receiver Mohamed Massaquoi said.

Georgia coach Mark Richt has the difficult task of making sure Georgia concentrates on the here and now instead of worrying about the future. After all, Michigan entered the 2007 season with similar promise and found itself out of national-title contention on the first day of September. The Bulldogs won't have to worry about reaching the BCS Championship Game if they can't win their opener against Georgia Southern.

"Our goal was to try to focus on the moment, not on way down the road," Richt said. "I mean, people started talking national championship after the Sugar Bowl. That's too long to be chewing on that bone, so to speak. We had to break it down into the smallest component, which is today. What can you do today to get better and to prepare yourself for the opportunity."

If the Bulldogs don't maintain their focus, they have the type of schedule that could turn a potential championship celebration into a season of consternation.

Georgia faces South Carolina and Arizona State on the road on back-to-back September weekends. South Carolina upset the Bulldogs in Athens last season, while the Arizona State trip represents Georgia's first foray west of the Central time zone since a 10-3 loss at USC in 1960.

The road gets even more treacherous later in the season. An Oct. 25 trip to Death Valley starts a four-game stretch in which the Bulldogs face LSU, Florida, Kentucky and Auburn each away from Athens.

"We know they're all going to be tough," Richt said. "Our state of mind going into the game every game is that it's going to be a 60-minute war. And if you think it's going to be any different, and it becomes that, you're in trouble."

But that doesn't prevent them from having some fun along the way. Georgia went on its season-ending surge last year after Richt changed his usual straight-laced approach on the sidelines. After handing play-calling duties to coordinator Mike Bobo before last season, Richt saw fit to show more emotion each Saturday. The most obvious example came when Richt told his players that he'd be upset if they weren't penalized for an excessive celebration after scoring their first touchdown against Florida.

Georgia's No. 2 ranking in the final AP poll represented the Bulldogs' highest finish since their 1980 national championship season, but they've grown accustomed to top-10 performances under Mark Richt. Here's a look at how Georgia has finished each season since Richt's arrival.
Year Record Rank
2001 8-4 22nd
2002 13-1 3rd
2003 11-3 7th
2004 10-2 7th
2005 10-3 10th
2006 9-4 23rd
2007 11-2 2nd
"He's changed completely from my freshman year to now," Owens said.

Richt plans to continue that approach this season. He pointed out that side of his personality always was evident to friends and relatives, even if fans and players didn't necessarily see it until last fall.

"There have been people saying, 'Mark Richt, he's a true gentleman of the game. He never gets excited. He's just kind of calm and stoic,' " Richt said. "My family members are just texting me saying, 'We know better.' Not that I'm not a gentleman. But I get riled up. I get fired up.

"When I compete myself, whether it's racquetball or volleyball, whatever it might be, cards, my family knows I want to win. I'll do a little trash-talking. I'll do whatever I've got to do to get things riled up."

Georgia has the type of talent on both sides of the field to get plenty of coaches riled up this fall. The Bulldogs boast plenty of star power on offense with quarterback Matthew Stafford and tailback Knowshon Moreno, who both could work their way into the Heisman Trophy conversation by the end of the season. But they may be even better on defense, where they return their top six tacklers from a year ago.

No wonder excitement around campus hasn't been so high since Herschel Walker's heyday in the early 1980s.

"I told the players that this preseason hype could be a blessing or a curse," Richt said. "It's a curse if you think it gives you a sense of entitlement to where you think you don't have to prepare. It could be a blessing if you look at it as one of the greatest opportunities of your life and you put the work in to even be in position to have a chance.''

Richt likes what he has seen so far. The Bulldogs aren't looking ahead to what they could accomplish at the end of the season. Nor are they looking back to the disappointment of last season, when LSU leapfrogged them in the rankings after the SEC Championship Game to earn a shot at the national title.

Instead of complaining Thursday that they deserved to play in the BCS title game, the Bulldogs noted that they shouldn't have put their fate in someone else's hands by losing to South Carolina and Tennessee earlier in the season.

"As I watch them, I don't see any complacency," Richt said. "I see guys working extremely hard and getting excited about it."

If they keep that approach all season, the Bulldogs could be feeling even more excited in January.

Steve Megargee is a national writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at smegargee@rivals.com.

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