Dogs cautious but excited

ATHENS, Ga. - As he described the status of fifth-ranked Georgia for Saturday's homecoming game against Vanderbilt, Coach <b>Mark Richt</b> used words like "cautious" and "diligent" but also "excited."

At 6-0 overall and 3-0 in the Southeastern Conference, Georgia is in excellent position to win the Eastern Division race and, for the first time, compete in the SEC championship game in Atlanta.

At a point in the season some coaches might avoid the subject, Mark Richt has also addressed the reality that Georgia could be in position to compete for more than the SEC title. If Georgia wins Saturday, it could be No. 3 or higher in the first Bowl Championship Series poll Monday.

"I don't think it's a bad thing to talk about the national championship,'' Richt said. "It's a realistic goal at the University of Georgia. It's happened before and it can happen again.''

The first priority is getting to Atlanta, and Saturday marks only the midpoint of the conference race for Georgia. That is good reason for caution. Georgia still has Kentucky, Florida, Mississippi and Auburn ahead on its SEC schedule.

After back-to-back wins over Alabama and Tennessee which were packed with historical significance, Saturday's homecoming game against Vanderbilt (1-5 overall, 0-3 SEC) could be a predictable spot for a letdown from Georgia players. Richt is especially concerned that homecoming activities will have many fans arriving late for the 12:30 p.m. kickoff.

Georgia has its highest ranking since the 1983 season and its best SEC start in 20 years. It even enjoys the comfort of a one-game cushion over second-place South Carolina in the East. The challenge tomorrow is not to lose the edge - on the field and in the standings.

"I think they know that once you lose a game you lose the cushion and all of a sudden you could very easily become tight about the whole situation,'' Richt said.

With the exception of the Alabama game, when Georgia rushed for a season-high 161 yards, questions about a lack of offense have followed the Bulldogs, including after last week's 18-13 victory over then-No. 10 Tennessee.

The defense shut out the Vols through three quarters, Billy Bennett kicked three field goals and the special teams contributed a blocked punt, blocked field goal and a safety, and that left only one touchdown for the offense. Richt says he hopes the positive side to Georgia's poor rankings in total offense - 11th in the SEC, 94th in the nation, two spots behind Vanderbilt - is that the team has not peaked.

Based just on offense, Georgia has experienced many of the inconsistencies that have Florida and Tennessee fans howling in frustration at their respective coaches. In the three SEC games, Georgia has outscored its opponents only 58-45.

"The good thing is I still don't see us being a team that can be extremely proud of what we've done,'' Richt said. "I mean we have to feel good about it, but I don't think anybody is going to get overconfident. It's not like we're just thrashing anybody. We're struggling just like everybody else, we're just winning.''

Defense doesn't slump, and that has been Georgia's strength. The unit which ranks 10th in the nation in scoring defense will be challenged by Vanderbilt's option running game today. Georgia is 18th in the nation against the run. The defense is built around senior linebackers Boss Bailey and Tony Gilbert, junior defensive tackle Johnathan Sullivan, and sophomore defensive end David Pollack. A young secondary led by rover Kentrell Curry has played better against the pass than last year's more experienced unit.

"I just look at their defense and realize there aren't many opportunities to get big plays,'' said Vanderbilt first-year coach Bobby Johnson, the former long-time coach at Furman. "You see guys break through their line and look like they're going to get 30 yards, but they wind up getting only six or seven.''

Vanderbilt ranks last in the league in total defense and will face a Georgia offense that should feature more substitutions in the backfield than in recent weeks. After missing four weeks with a broken foot, D.J. Shockley appears ready for at least limited work at quarterback behind starter David Greene. Richt has not yet committed to a return to the same rotation at quarterback he used in the first two games.

Also, Richt is determined to have backup tailback Tony Milton see an increase in playing time, even though starter Musa Smith has been given full clearance after jamming his neck in the Tennessee game.

For Vanderbilt, redshirt freshman Jay Cutler will return at quarterback. Cutler and two other players were suspended last week when the Commodores suffered a 21-20 home loss to Middle Tennessee State. Cutler has passed for six touchdowns and rushed for four touchdowns in the option attack. Vanderbilt's lone win came the second week of the season against Furman.

Vanderbilt at No. 5 Georgia
When/Where: Saturday, 12:30 p.m. ET/Sanford Stadium, Athens, Ga. 
TV: Jefferson-Pilot TV
Last week: Georgia beat No. 10 Tennessee, 18-13; Vanderbilt lost at home to Middle Tennessee State, 21-20.
Records:  Georgia (6-0 overall, 3-0 Southeastern Conference); Vanderbilt (1-5 overall, 0-3 SEC).
Head coaches: Mark Richt is 14-4 in his second season at Georgia; Bobby Johnson is 1-5 in his first year at Vanderbilt and 61-41 overall. 
Georgia players to watch : QB David Greene (105 of 181 passing for 1,245 yards, 10 TD, 6 INT);  RB Musa Smith (110  carries for 512 yards, 3 TD; 10 receptions for 77 yards); WR Terrence Edwards (27 receptions for 361&nb

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