HOOVER, Ala. — The two stars were pictured on the cover of last year’s media guide. The dog is on this year’s cover. The logical assumption is that nobody doubts that Uga will live up to expectations.
Georgia is here and Mark Richt is here and it’s a lot different from a year ago. No questions about a pre-season No. 1 ranking or championship aspirations. No Matthew Stafford swoon parade walking through the lobby. No circus. Barely a buzz.
“It’s been different in a lot of ways this summer,” Richt said Thursday morning. “It’s been a blessing.”
If the Bulldogs aren’t an afterthought at these SEC meetings, they at least are having an easier time blending into the scenery. They’re south of LSU but north of Vanderbilt. If you’re Richt, you’re experiencing the head coach’s dream. Yes, there were injuries last season. Those injuries affected not only the team’s depth but the surviving players’ mindset.
But most of all there were distractions that the Bulldogs just didn’t deal with well. There were eight arrests in the off-season and returning seniors now believe players weren’t accountable to each other enough. The residual was an undisciplined football team that led the SEC in penalties and, unofficially, dumb decisions. And feeding into all that: meteoric expectations.
Not a problem this season. If something goes wrong, nobody will say it was because Lindy’s ranked Georgia 17th in July.
“I’m sure people are not expecting a lot,” Richt said before his formal news conference at SEC media days. “A year ago, when you have what people would consider stars – Knowshon [Moreno], Matthew — people think: ‘They have stars. Certainly they’re going to win the national championship.’ And conversely: ‘They’re gone now so they don’t have much of a chance.’ But we know football takes more than two guys. It’s a team sport.”
You’ll hear the same themes over and over again in the coming weeks. Teamwork. Leadership. Focus. Toughness. All that stuff that deteriorated so early last season.
Richt has coached in this situation before. Players leave for the NFL. Everybody else looks around and thinks, “Tombstone, Arizona: The day after.”
But that doesn’t preclude success.
“It has to do with what you truly believe,” he said. “The more you hear about how great Knowshon is and how Matt is and how great Mohammed [Massaquoi] is, whether you like it or not, it seeps into your subconscious and you think ‘You know what, we’ve got these guys. We’re going to be OK.’ When they’re gone, it’s more like, ‘It’s up to me. It’s up to us.’”
They’re projected as no better than the fifth best team in the SEC. Ahead of them: Florida, Alabama, Mississippi and LSU.
The Dogs aren’t devoid of talent. They’re just devoid of cover boys. But they’ll need to excel in areas they failed so miserably at a year ago, notably mental and physical toughness. Richt accepts some of the blame for that. When the team began to get hit by injuries in the pre-season, the coach backed off in practices, concerned that a backup-turned-starter would be the next to get hurt.
“We backed off the way we’ve practiced every year since we’ve been at Georgia,” he said. “In scrimmage No. 2, we decided not to tackle. When the practice was over, I almost got sick. I almost threw up. I knew that wasn’t going to get us ready to play.”
He can’t control injuries. But there are so many other things he won’t have to deal with, and one of them is a white hot spotlight. And on Thursday, nobody asked: What’s it like to be No. 1?