Dawgs do SEC Media Days

BIRMINGHAM – Judging by the horde of reporters who flocked to Florida's Tim Tebow like ants to a discarded French fry or the sea of crimson-clad Alabama fans who crowded the lobby of the Wynfrey Hotel in search of a mere glimpse of head coach Nick Saban, you might not have guessed it was the mild-mannered Mark Richt who arrived at Media Days with the team considered the SEC's preseason favorite.

And that's fine by Richt. He doesn't fly under the radar often these days.

From Georgia students already dreaming about the school's first national title in nearly three decades to national media members labeling the Bulldogs as preseason favorites, Richt and his players have already gotten their fair share of hype.

"You can't avoid it," wide receiver Mohamed Massaquoi said. "Anywhere you go in Athens, anywhere you go in Georgia, people are talking about it. There's red and black all over the state, and the fans are expecting us to do great things."

Indeed, the Bulldogs bandwagon is filling up quickly.

Georgia finished the 2007 season with a Sugar Bowl victory and a No. 2 ranking. Dozens of national magazines have predicted even better results this year. Even defensive tackle Jeff Owens' latest video game purchase – "NCAA Football 2009" – has the Bulldogs ranked No. 1.

"We don't really know where we're going to be ranked preseason, although all the publications are putting us in the top three, so there's high expectations," Richt said.

One person who won't have Georgia ranked atop the polls to start the year, however, is Richt, himself.

Richt said he reads through other experts' preseason picks and comes up with an average to determine how he votes in the coaches' poll. Although he hasn't submitted a ballot yet, he said he won't be penciling the Bulldogs into the top spot. That honor, he said, will likely go to Southern California or Ohio State.

The reason for his pessimism – if you can call a top-three ranking pessimistic – is Georgia's schedule, which might be best described as a gauntlet.

Early trips to South Carolina and a non-conference showdown with Arizona State will serve as tune-ups for home games against Alabama and Tennessee and trips to Kentucky, Auburn and the defending national champ, Louisiana State. Oh, and there's also that little tussle in Jacksonville, Fla. with the Gators.

"Our players, they understand that this league is the toughest league in America," Richt said. "They know they'll have to work their tails off just to be in position to have a good season, let alone win a championship."

But make no mistake, a national title is still the goal.

"Everybody wants to end up there. That's the ultimate goal, but you can't make that the only goal or your first goal," Richt said.

After all, the chance to play for a championship might just come down to those pesky polls and fickle experts.

Last year, after a slow start to the season, including a 35-14 loss to Tennessee, the Bulldogs had to fight their way back toward the top of the polls. The charge came up short, the Volunteers took the SEC East title, and LSU earned a bid in the BCS National Championship game. Georgia, winners of six straight games to close the regular season, settled for a Sugar Bowl bid and watched the Tigers win the title.

"We were never guaranteed that spot," Massaquoi said. "LSU deserved to be there, they won the SEC, they put themselves in a position to go there. This year, we want to put ourselves in a similar situation to really control our own destiny."

It just so happens that this year, one of the obstacles along the way will be managing expectations – something that might be easier said than done from atop the rankings.

For Owens, though, the hard work it took to get to the top won't be overshadowed by the hype that comes with being there.

"Fans are going to be fans," Owens said. "It's all about what happens between the hedges and what goes on in the locker room. We know what we have to accomplish."

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