Grand expectations are seldom in short supply for Georgia's football team, but they took a vacation last year.
The program was recovering from a disappointing season that precipitated the firing of coach Jim Donnan, so most people weren't sure just how good - or how bad - the Bulldogs would be in 2002.
But after an 8-4 season under coach Mark Richt, things are back to normal. Emboldened by the promise shown by their team last season and preseason polls that list the Bulldogs among the nation's elite, Georgia fans are giddy again.
And Richt, despite a dose of caution that is standard for a guy in his pressure-packed position, says the talk isn't all that far-fetched.
"I do believe that, if we stay healthy, we've got a shot at making a run," the 42-year-old coach said Monday before addressing the Augusta Bulldog Club at Sacred Heart Cultural Center. "We've got a lot of players coming back who are talented and who are understanding what we're doing."
Indeed, being great instead of simply good appears possible for a team that returns 15 starters, including four on the offensive line, and 43 lettermen.
Plenty of teams would love to have just one of the Bulldogs' talented wideouts - Fred Gibson, Damien Gary, Reggie Brown and Washington County's Terrence Edwards have game-breaking ability - and quarterback David Greene is back after winning SEC Freshman of the Year honors.
The defense returns tackle Johnathan Sullivan and linebackers Tony Gilbert and Boss Bailey from a unit that improved late in the season, and players like end David Pollack, cornerback Decory Bryant and linebacker Chris Clemons have demonstrated potential.
Georgia fans are probably gun shy when discussing potential, having seen it go unfulfilled more often than not since the Bulldogs' last Southeastern Conference title in 1982. Richt is convinced that elevating the program to the highest level begins with his players believing it can be done.
He said the team didn't didn't have that belief when he arrived in December of 2000, and instilling it hasn't been easy.
"I think they've come a long way," said Richt, whose team opens the season at home against Clemson on Aug. 31. "Usually, bad and good things are going to happen on both sides of the ball. If you believe in yourself, it's a bump in the road. But if you're not sure of yourself, then you think the sky is falling."
Richt doesn't have to worry about his fans' faith. He said they're always most optimistic this time of year, when the first game is still months away and it's easy to fantasize about the possibilities.
"That's the beauty of the off-season - everybody's got a chance," he said. "But there's no reason why our fans shouldn't expect us to win and do well. That's part of the attraction of Georgia for me is people who care, people who expect a great product."
Reach Larry Williams at (706) 823-3645.
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