Stakes rocket up for Richt

Four years ago, Georgia football coach Mark Richt found out about high expectations.

 

The Bulldogs entered the 2004 preseason ranked as one of the nation's top teams. That pales in comparison to what fans and football observers are anticipating for the upcoming season.

"We did get a lot of attention (in 2004)," Richt said. "People were talking about Georgia as a possible contender. But I don't think it was nearly as intense as it is this year."

Georgia's expectations have been bumped up several notches because of last season's strong finish and the possibility of the team earning its first-ever No. 1 preseason ranking. Amid those prospects, a sold-out crowd of more than 600 fans staged their own "Blackout" Tuesday night for Richt's visit to the annual Greater Augusta Bulldog Club meeting at St. Mary on the Hill gymnasium.

Georgia held its first "Blackout" at home last season against rival Auburn, a 45-20 victory. Richt confirmed another "Blackout" is on the horizon.

"We ordered some black jerseys," he said. "I'm sure we'll wear them one of these days."

Ggeorgia won its final seven games of the 2007 season, including a 41-10 thrashing of Hawaii in the Sugar Bowl, and finished No. 2 in the nation. Georgia returns 16 of 22 starters, including potential Heisman Trophy candidates in junior quarterback Matthew Stafford and sophomore running back Knowshon Moreno.

"Rarely has a guy won the Heisman without his team playing extremely well," Richt said. "I think they understand that. I can't imagine them putting that trophy ahead of our team winning a championship."

Moreno ran for 100 or more yards five consecutive games en route to becoming the 2007 SEC Freshman of the Year. Despite splitting carries with Thomas Brown, who was selected by the Atlanta Falcons in April's NFL Draft, Moreno finished second in the Southeastern Conference with 1,334 rushing yards.

Stafford was sixth in the SEC in passing, completing 56 percent of his passes for 2,523 yards, 19 touchdowns and 10 interceptions.

"I think he's going to continue to progress as a player, but I think he's going to grow the most in his leadership role," Richt said of his quarterback. "He already has become our leader offensively."

With seven returning starters on offense and nine on defense, Georgia will need its experience to navigate an extremely challenging schedule that includes road games at South Carolina, Arizona State, Auburn and defending national champion LSU. The Bulldogs, who play host to Alabama, Tennessee and Georgia Tech, also face Florida for their annual game in Jacksonville, Fla.

Richt, 72-19 in seven seasons, said his team has to focus on winning the SEC Eastern Division.

"You do that and get to the SEC Championship game and win that," he said, "then you've got a shot to play for a national championship."

Georgia is expected to receive its highest Associated Press preseason national ranking this summer, eclipsing the No. 3 ranking in 2004. Richt said his team understands a top ranking comes with great responsibility.

"You do have to earn the right to be a good team," he said. "You do have to earn the right to become a champion. You can't just show up.

"I think if the guys weren't working, we'd have a problem. I think people talking about this team, from what I've seen so far, is motivating our team to work harder."

Reach Chris Gay at (706) 823-3645 or chris.gay@augustachronicle.com.

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