Focus on the field

Amid controversy, Bulldogs seem set to defend the title


Published: Friday, August 1, 2003 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Friday, August 1, 2003 at 2:58 a.m.
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Georgia All-American defensive end David Pollack says the defending SEC champions have had a great summer and the focus is solely set on retaining their crown.

NYT Regional Newspapers
Birmingham, Ala. Before all the controversy struck in Athens last winter, another corrosive "C" word already had begun seeping into the Georgia football program.
Complacency. The Bulldogs were sitting back, feeling pretty full of themselves, still gloating over and celebrating the program's first SEC championship in 20 years. The sense of satisfaction was almost overwhelming - and potentially debilitating.
But the controversy took care of all that. When it hit and hit hard, it knocked the complacency right out of the 'Dogs.
"Some of the things that happened probably helped us get our focus on what's important this season," UGA coach Mark Richt said. "In hindsight, we were getting an awful lot of pats on the back and having people tell us how great we were. We were falling into a complacent attitude. Our players were fighting it, but it was very difficult to get back to work.
"No one wanted to forget last year. They didn't want to move forward. They wanted to relive what we'd done. (The controversy) gave us a reality check and stopped all the patting on the back and allowed us to refocus on what was important. The summer was better because of the controversy we had to go through."
The most controversial - and potentially most divisive - incident involved several players going on eBay and selling their 2002 SEC championship rings. Not only was it a violation of NCAA rules, it angered many of the other players who cherished the rings they'd fought so hard to earn.
The players involved were ruled ineligible by the NCAA, but have since been reinstated.
The ring scandal is one of a litany of off-the-field problems that rocked the program - and awakened the coaches and players from their championship lethargy.
Before the start of the summer semester, the Bulldogs held a team meeting to talk about the problems, air any differences and refocus on the season that lies ahead.
"We talked about everything and it's behind us now," All-American defensive end David Pollack said. "We had people crying telling their side of the (ring scandal) story. It was a family thing. It's behind us now, it's over. We've had a great summer working hard and running. Everything has panned out like it should."
Said Richt: "It was like a town meeting. We gave everyone an opportunity to air out any problems. We said, 'When we walk out of this room, we're a unified group'. We walked out of there much more focused. The whole thing may have been a blessing for the 2003 season. I may be wrong, but I really believe it."
Now that the 'Dogs have buried the troubling offseason, they're focusing on football and trying to repeat as SEC champions. Despite the off-the-field shenanigans, Georgia is considered the favorite to win the Eastern Division and advance to the league title game in Atlanta.
For the first time in more than two decades, the Bulldogs are collared with the pressure of being the team everyone else is trying to beat in the SEC.
With so many young players - and a huge question mark on the offensive line, where all the starters are new - the Bulldogs are facing a daunting challenge to defend.
"I don't look at us as being the hunted as much as Auburn or LSU," Richt said. "If I was picking, I'd pick Tennessee first in the East. We're in a situation where we're starting all over.
"We'll find out what these young guys can help us enough to be the team we need to be."
In his first two years at Georgia, Richt had veteran teams that featured 20 to 25 seniors each season. In 2003, the Bulldogs will have only 11 seniors and 12 juniors.
The biggest area of concern is on the offensive line, where five seniors from a year ago will be replaced by true sophomores and redshirt freshmen, with the depth coming from the incoming freshman class.
"It's a precarious situation. It's scary," Richt said. "If we stay healthy, it's going to be a challenge to get this group ready to play. If we have injuries, we're going to have true freshmen playing."
The good news is the 'Dogs have two excellent quarterbacks - David Greene, the All-SEC quarterback last season, and multi-talented D.J. Shockley - and a wide receiver corps that may be the strongest and deepest in the league.
Like a year ago, Greene and Shockley will share time at quarterback.
"Our quarterback situation is as good as any in the nation," Richt said. "Greene is one of the best players in college football and Shockley has the potential to be just as good. And we have receivers who have made big catches in big games."
Richt said the 'Dogs won't have to endure a distracting quarterback controversy, no matter how hard the media tries to create one.
"Greene has handled (sharing time) beautifully," Richt said. "All it takes is one of those guys to say this really stinks, publicly or privately, and you've got yourself a controversy. But they love Georgia, like each other quite a bit and can handle the pounding from the media on the issue.
"It just hasn't been a problem. Our team believes in both of them."
On defense, the 'Dogs must replace all three starting linebackers and All-SEC end Jonathan Sullivan. But they do have Pollack, the 2002 player of the year in the SEC, and a talented and experienced secondary.
"We're hungry and ready to get going," Pollack said. "Our goal is to win a championship. We won the SEC championship last year. I'd like to win a national championship this season."
To do that, the Bulldogs likely will have to do something they've done only once in the past 13 seasons - beat arch-rival Florida.
Despite last year's history making season, Richt has been hearing from alumni in the offseason that he has to beat the Gators.
"As a head coach, I'm 0-2 against Florida, and we're 1-12 or whatever the heck we are," he said. "There's not a lot I can say right now. We'll do our best to beat them."
You can reach Robbie Andreu by e-mail at andreur@gvillesun.com or by calling 374-5022.

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