ATHENS, Ga. - If it sounded as if Georgia football coach Mark Richt was heading to a funeral Tuesday, it's because he was. But the somber tone of his final preseason news conference wasn't purely coincidental.
Richt took it upon himself to represent the Bulldogs football team in Monticello at the funeral for linebacker Odell Thurman's father. In three days he'll lead his short-handed team into the first of two Death Valleys.
Without 18 players at his service (eight suspended, 10 injured) in Saturday's season opener at Clemson, Richt can be excused for not sounding like the coach of the 11th-ranked team in the nation, the defending Southeastern Conference champions and a 3-point favorite against the Tigers.
"After all that's happened to this point, I'm not so sure we should be the favorite," Richt said.
There are plenty of reasons for a little bit of pessimism from the coach of a team picked just a month ago to repeat as champions of the rugged SEC East. Being short-handed and inexperienced is one thing. Being that and having to face a hungry Tigers team in front of more than 80,000 hostile fans at high noon in August makes it all the more daunting.
"I'm very concerned about getting through that ball game without running out of gas," Richt said. "That's my No. 1 issue at this moment. It's going to be hot, and we're going to have to play some players who probably aren't ready to go."
Not that Richt and the Bulldogs haven't been in this position before. Two years ago, he took an untested road quarterback into Knoxville, Tenn., and won. Last season he traveled to Lexington, Ky., without his best running back and won. Then he went into Auburn, Ala., without two of his best receivers and won again.
In fact, Richt's Bulldogs have never lost a game in an opponent's stadium in eight tries. In addition to Tennessee, Auburn and Kentucky, they've won at Alabama, South Carolina, Ole Miss, Vanderbilt and Georgia Tech.
Clemson's Death Valley and LSU's Death Valley - where Georgia must play Sept. 20 - have reputations for being among the toughest places in the country for a visitor to prevail. They still are, even though Clemson's luster has worn off a bit with five home losses in the past two seasons.
"It's as big an atmosphere as anybody we'll play, no doubt," said Richt, who experienced Death Valley at its finest on several occasions as an assistant at Florida State.
The healthy veterans whom Richt can count on Saturday aren't willing to cave because of a little adversity. The SEC's best returning quarterback and defensive lineman don't seem overly worried.
"With our starting 11 on both sides, we feel like we have enough experience and talent to get a win," David Greene said.
"Death Valley ... eighty-some thousand people ... sounds like a good start to me," said David Pollack.
Still, given the material Richt has to work with, he could have gone full-Holtz on us and issued an undeniable proclamation of negativity. South Carolina's Lou Holtz, who can make Louisiana-Lafayette sound like the second coming of Notre Dame's Four Horsemen, might have made Georgia's challenge seem more hopeless than the charge of the Light Brigade.
But Richt isn't Holtz. His concerns are real, yet so is his underlying confidence that he, his staff and whatever players he has can get the job done.
"It's going to be a very exciting year because there are just a lot of unknowns," he said. "But there's a lot of reason for optimism. I know I haven't sounded real optimistic, but for the course of the season I'm very optimistic about what can happen."
Then he paused and finished his thought.
"I also know it can go either way."
Reach Scott Michaux at (706) 823-3219 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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