Originally created 11/27/02

Bulldogs stay in the present



ATHENS, Ga. - If there was any remaining doubt that Georgia is concentrating fully on Saturday's regular-season finale against Georgia Tech, Mark Richt all but eliminated it Tuesday.

Bulldog Nation will be glued to its TVs this week when Louisiana State plays at Arkansas to decide the Southeastern Conference's Western Division champion.

Richt, however, doesn't seem too interested in breaking down his team's opponent in the Dec. 7 SEC title game - not yet, anyway. He didn't know until being told Tuesday that the Tigers and Razorbacks square off Friday at 2:30 p.m.

"We're not focusing on it," said Richt, whose team clinched its first SEC East title by beating Auburn on Nov. 16. "The media might be, and the fans might be. ... But we're not focusing on that game at all."

For the No. 5 Bulldogs (10-1), who still have hope of winning their first national championship since 1980, talk of anything but Georgia Tech is taboo this week. While the media and fans remain preoccupied with what will take place at Atlanta's Georgia Dome in 10 days, facing the Yellow Jackets is pretty big, too.

Just call Saturday's game (3:30 p.m., CBS-Ch. 12) the showdown before the showdown.

"If people think we're going to look past Tech, they're sorely mistaken," said senior offensive tackle Jon Stinchcomb, whose team snapped a three-game losing streak to Georgia Tech last year with a 31-17 win in Atlanta. "This game means so much to so many of us."

The question nowadays is whether this rivalry game means as much to the Bulldogs as the others. Their meetings with Florida and Tennessee seem to become more hate-filled by the season, and showdowns this year with Clemson, South Carolina and Auburn had major implications as well.

Richt, in his second year as head coach at Georgia, said he didn't realize until last year just how important beating the Yellow Jackets is to Bulldogs faithful.

He thought the fans were giddy after his team's last-minute upset at Tennessee earlier in the 2001 season, but he said the response was "five times" bigger after the win in Atlanta.

"You can just tell people are so much more passionate about the Tech game," he said.

A week off appears to have enhanced Georgia's passion for playing Georgia Tech. The Bulldogs haven't played since the historic 24-21 win at Auburn, which was clinched by a miracle fourth-down touchdown pass from David Greene to Michael Johnson.

Without the open date, Richt might have had a tougher time yanking his team back down to earth. As it was, the Bulldogs had a chance to nurse some nagging injuries and realize that the season can still be considered a failure if they slip.

"It would definitely tarnish something that's really special right now," said Stinchcomb, whose team hasn't beaten Georgia Tech at home since 1996. "We're going to do everything we can to prevent that from happening."

As for Friday's SEC West showdown, Richt said he might make some time to watch it. He's just glad the Bulldogs don't know whom they'll face in Atlanta.

"If we knew who we were going to play for certain, you might want to sneak around and take a peek," he said.

INJURY UPDATE: Sophomore linebacker Arnold Harrison, a former Josey High standout who missed the past five games with a shoulder injury, suffered a hip injury during Monday's practice and is doubtful for Saturday's game. Richt said senior split end Terrence Edwards, a former Washington County star who suffered a separated shoulder Nov. 9 against Mississippi, could play. Flanker Damien Gary (leg) is doubtful. Guard Alex Jackson (ankle) is probable.

Reach Larry Williams at (706) 823-3645 or larry.williams@augustachronicle.com