This is strange territory for Richt and his Dogs

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ATHENS, Ga. --- One of the most amusing football traditions is the weekly head coach assessment of the upcoming opponent.

Lou Holtz could make the Navy backfield sound like the second coming of the Four Horsemen of Notre Dame.

Vince Dooley was the master of digging up the most glowing statistical element that made Vanderbilt seem dangerous.

All of the sand-bagging chatter should come with a disclaimer. They all subscribe to the same if-you-can't-say-something-good philosophy, with the possible exception of South Carolina coach Steve Spurrier.

So when Georgia's unfailingly polite Mark Richt sat down to the podium Tuesday, you instinctively prepare for the gush.

"South Carolina, they are ... they're 1-0," Richt said in a tone that was a cross between envy and bewilderment.

Really, it's the nicest thing the Georgia coach could say about his next opponent -- which didn't actually distinguish itself in a 7-3 victory at N.C. State. Richt only wishes he could say the same for his own team.

Georgia's 2009 debut, a 24-10 defeat at Oklahoma State, has left the team and its followers a little bit disoriented. It's not a typical situation for the Bulldogs or Richt. Never once -- either as an assistant or head coach -- has Richt ever been associated with a season-opening loss. Georgia hasn't been in this spot since falling 11-7 in a home opener against Southern Miss in 1996 -- Jim Donnan's first season at the helm.

The same year was also the last time the Bulldogs started 0-2 after South Carolina delivered the honors at Williams-Brice Stadium. The possibility of the Gamecocks pushing the Bulldogs to 0-2 has generated uncomfortable conversation among Bulldog faithful about the season and starting quarterback Joe Cox.

Richt isn't falling for the psychological trap of fearing the threat of 0-2.

"I'm not worried about perception," he said. "I'm worried about winning right now. We played a top-10 team and lost. That's what happened. We're playing game two and we're focused on what it takes to win the next game. We're not focused on what people say about us. You just can't do that -- it's counterproductive."

The Georgia players, however, aren't denying the significance of a game that already holds enough prominence as the Southeastern Conference opener.

"It's big," said Cox. "Everybody wants to see how we are going to rebound. This is the start of conference play, and we have to play well. I think everybody knows that and is ready to do that."

This border rivalry has been the traditional SEC kickoff for both teams since South Carolina joined the conference in 1992. Since divisional play was established, the programs pretty much follow the same batting order every year.

Would a little variation in scheduling be welcome?

"I don't even know what it would take to do that or what kind of problems would arise from it," Richt said. "A lot of times we are all creatures of habit and no one really likes change much. If you have a systematic way of scheduling teams and everybody kind of gets settled into it, the first time you change I'm sure everybody would throw a fit about it, so I'm fine with the way it is right now."

The only variable is venue and kickoff time. Saturday's 7 p.m. kickoff for ESPN2 adds a little juice to the equation.

"I think the fans, when they have a little bit of time to get worked up, tend to be more excited by the time kickoff rolls around at 7," Richt said.

Spurrier isn't too worried about the extra energy in Sanford Stadium after the Gamecocks experienced the atmosphere last Thursday night in Raleigh, N.C.

"The N.C. State crowd was loud and fired up," Spurrier said. "It was a big-time atmosphere. Obviously Georgia's stadium is a little bigger. A little more than 30,000 (more people) will be screaming and yelling for the Bulldogs, but when you can't hear you can't hear so it makes no difference if it's 60,000 or 80,000."

The outlook for Saturday night's game isn't any different than it's been since Richt arrived in Athens. Only once since 2001 has one team scored more than 20 points. Since Spurrier took over the Gamecocks in 2005, the winning team has never scored out of the teens.

"They've all been very low scoring," Spurrier said. "Who knows what can happen? Eighteen points was the most either team has scored since I've been here."

After the paltry offensive performances in their respective openers, some are wondering if the first team to double digits will win Saturday night.

"As I look at this game I'm seeing two defenses that played pretty darn good and two offenses that are trying to find their way," Richt said.

That's about as honest and accurate an assessment as you'll ever hear. If Georgia doesn't find it's way Saturday, there will be even harsher analysis coming from the peanut gallery.

Reach Scott Michaux at (706) 823-3219 or scott.michaux@augustachronicle.com.


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