Painful offseason nearly over

ATHENS – The offseason Mark Richt must have thought would never end finally will come to a close Thursday evening when his Georgia football players officially check in for the 2005 season.

While the Bulldogs' summer was marked by incident after incident, the season itself will be defined by what kind of answers the team provides to a long list of questions.

How will D.J. Shockley perform now that he's finally taking over for college football's winningest quarterback? How will Georgia keep three starter-quality tailbacks happy and productive? And, most importantly, what will the program do to follow up the second-most successful four-year run in its history now that Greene, the record-setting quarterback, David Pollack and three other NFL draft picks are gone?

"It would be nice to be able to continue the momentum that we have right now," Richt said. "We've finished third and sixth and sixth in the coaches' poll the last three years. We have won (10 or more) games in the last three years. You want to keep those types of streaks going."

The Bulldogs are 42-10 in the last four years and 34-6 in the last three. The only era in the program's history that can top that mark is the four-year stretch from 1980-83, when the team was 43-4-1. That momentum quickly died though as Georgia didn't win more than eight games for the next three years and didn't win 10 or more again for nine seasons.

Many observers think this year's team could face a similar slide. The Bulldogs were picked to finish third in the SEC's Eastern Division by media members who cover the conference, and that pick is virtually the consensus among preseason rankings. Still, Richt is not concerned that his team is at a crossroads and won't be regardless of what happens this season, he said.

"I think Georgia football is very, very healthy," he said. "One season of sub-par play in the minds of Georgia people, I don't think is going to be devastating, but we plan on competing for the league championship and competing for the Eastern Division (title), just as always, and I think we have a good chance to be right in the middle of it."

Richt raised the level of expectations for all of his teams by winning two division titles and one overall conference crown in his first three seasons, but he said last week he thinks most Bulldog fans are savvy enough to realize that winning a title every year isn't feasible in a league as competitive as the SEC.

"I really believe that SEC fans are really pretty educated," he said. "I don't think they expect their team to win the SEC every year. I think they want a team that's going to fight like mad for 60 minutes and win its share of games and, hopefully, be in the hunt to win it. I think if you won it every three years, every group of fans in the SEC would be thrilled to death."

Many Georgia fans will be happy simply to have football to talk about rather than the parade of arrests, incidents and unqualified signees that filled the offseason. The Bulldogs will have their first practice of the season Friday afternoon.

"Was it a long summer? I don't know," Richt said. "It wasn't as relaxing as I would have liked it to be."

At least it's finally over.

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