Dawgs/Tigers looking for 2

ATHENS - More than just the 2003 SEC Championship will be on the line Saturday when Georgia and LSU meet in the Georgia Dome. The winner will take the early lead in the race for the conference's Team of the Decade, a race the Bulldogs haven't been a part of for 20 years.

Georgia, 10-2 and ranked fifth in the country, and the Tigers, 11-1 and No. 3 in the land, meet Saturday at 8 p.m. in the 12th SEC Championship game. The winner will become the first program to win a pair of league titles in the new decade.

"I'm just glad we've been there twice," Georgia coach Mark Richt said. "We've got two in a row, and hopefully it will go on. It's very hard to do."

Neither team was expected to be here this season. LSU was supposed to be the last stepping stone on Auburn's blitzkrieg to the conference championship, and most observers thought Georgia was a year away. The Bulldogs were thought to be too young and too depleted to make a return trip to the title game.

Then Georgia's expected rebuilding season took another hit from a rash of injuries. The Bulldogs lost two starters for the entire season and three more for six or more games. In total, 20 starters missed time due to injury and 43 players missed a total of 80 games.

"If you'd have told me the number of guys who would get hurt when the season began, I probably wouldn't have thought we'd get here," Richt said.

Georgia's players aren't surprised, though.

"I don't think we're ahead of schedule," wide receiver Reggie Brown said. "We all expected to come back. We didn't care what everybody else expected. We actually expected to win a national championship. We actually fell short of our expectations.

"I guess we'll settle for an SEC Championship."

"Y'all are the ones who put the question mark there," defensive end David Pollack said.

The days of measuring success by eight- and nine-win seasons are over in Athens, Brown said.

"(The bar) has been raised very high," he said. "This coaching staff just has a different approach for maximizing our ability to give us a better chance to win."

Pollack agreed that Richt, who was hired three seasons ago, and his staff are the difference.

"Talent is even across the board at a lot of schools," he said. "I think what it boils down to is coaching."

The Bulldogs are 23-3 since the beginning of last season, which nearly matches the best two-year string in school history, 1980-81, when Georgia was 22-2. If Georgia wins Saturday, it will be just the second time it has won more than one SEC title in a row. Still, Richt is unwilling to speculate on a return to the glory days.

"To predict any kind of string would be foolish in this league," he said.

There are good signs for the Bulldogs. Only seven players on their two-deep depth chart are seniors. If none of Georgia's underclassmen jump to the NFL, they will return more than 84 percent of their offense and 85 percent of their tackles from this year's team for the 2004 season.

"We really feel like we're building something around here," said safety Thomas Davis said.

If Pollack, Davis, quarterback David Greene, wide receiver Fred Gibson and safety Sean Jones all return, Georgia will have five legitimate All-America candidates in 2004.

"This team is so deep," Brown said. "There are so many athletes at every position. We've got a young team and great talent. You can't ask for more. Maybe next year we can get that national championship we missed out on this year."

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