BIRMINGHAM, Ala. — It didn't take long for Georgia to be picked as the new bully on the block in the post-Steve Spurrier era of the Southeastern Conference.
South Carolina coach Lou Holtz told reporters on the opening day of SEC Kickoff 2002 that Georgia is the team to beat in the league.
It didn't matter Tuesday that Holtz has coached his Gamecocks to wins over Georgia each of the last two years. It also was of no apparent significance that Georgia has never played in the SEC Championship Game and has not won a conference title since 1982.
No matter. On the opening day of the annual preseason media blitz for SEC football, Holtz was more than happy to heap praise on the Bulldogs.
"I think Georgia is going to be the best team in the conference,'' Holtz said.
Holtz later noted that "Florida is going to be Florida'' even though Spurrier has left to coach the NFL's Washington Redskins. That means that new Florida coach Ron Zook will have no shortage of talent.
Entering its second season under Coach Mark Richt, who opened with an 8-4 record, Georgia is a popular top 10 pick in preseason magazines and on-line polls. Even so, many polls still pick Georgia behind Tennessee — picked No. 1 in the nation by two magazines — and Florida.
Asked why he picks Georgia, Holtz quipped: "Because we play them our first conference game.''
Holtz then quickly added "But let me give you some other reasons'' and he proceeded to talk about Georgia's experience and depth at such positions as quarterback, wide receiver, linebacker and offensive line.
"They play really well as a team,'' Holtz said. "They're well-disciplined and focused. They came along as a football team as the (2001 season) went along. ... Most important of all was the progress they've made as a team in terms of discipline.''
Richt took the podium before Holtz on the opening day of the three-day event, and so he could not respond to the praise. But Richt already has heard enough — from fans and reporters — to know that expectations are high that this team can compete for a championship.
"It kind of surprises you to know it has been 20 years since Georgia won a championship,'' Richt said. "These guys are hungry for it. The fans are hungry for it.''
Thanks to lasik surgery, Richt's focus on the season has been sharpened. Thanks to an offseason evaluation of his management of time — both in a game and in work week — he says he should be a more efficient coach.
Though praised for his last-minute calls in a dramatic win at Tennessee, Richt faced criticism for poor clock management late in a loss to Auburn. "The end of the Auburn game stung me personally,'' Richt said. "I felt I had done a poor job.''
With 16 seconds left in the Auburn game and Georgia out of timeouts, Richt called a running play at the Auburn 1. Jasper Sanks was stopped, and Georgia could not run another play.
Richt said he should have called for a fade pass that would have allowed time for another play if unsuccessful.
This year, Richt says he has arranged for quarterbacks coach Mike Bobo to "have the ability to say ‘Are you sure you want to do this?' '' Added Richt: "I don't function that well when there's a lot of voices in the headset.''
Therefore Bobo, who sits in the press box during games, will be the one voice with Richt's full attention in such crucial situations. Richt said he never second-guessed his dual roles as the head coach who calls plays during the game.
"I still really enjoy coaching quarterbacks and I enjoy coaching offensive football; I enjoy play-calling,'' Richt said. "I wish I had more time to prepare. I'm doing a better job of delegating certain things to the staff to free me up. That in itself is going to be very helpful.''
Added Richt: "I found myself at certain times just scrambling to find the time to put my thoughts together. I think I've got a better system in place. ... You talk about clock management, there's also time management. The better job I do with time management, the better job I'll do with being prepared.''
Richt needs no help in understanding this facet of time management: 20 years between SEC titles is long enough.
"We want to get to Atlanta (for the SEC Championship Game),'' he said. "Just like everybody else, I guess, we feel like we're due.''
Charles Odum can be reached here: CEOdum@aol.com