Bulldogs aim for national title

The Bowl Championship Series era began with Mark Richt coaching in the national title game for three straight years.

As offensive coordinator at Florida State, Richt made trips to the championship tilt from 1998 to 2000.

He became coach of a Georgia program that hadn’t won a Southeastern Conference title since 1982.

“I didn’t know what to expect coming in never being a head coach,” Richt said on the eve of his 12th season in Athens. “I didn’t know what Georgia had, I didn’t know what the rest of the league had. I wasn’t trying to jump to any conclusion, but after Year One I felt like there’s no reason why we couldn’t get there.”

It hasn’t happened yet, but Georgia again finds itself in position to make a run.

Three other times under Richt, the Bulldogs carried both an Associated Press top-10 ranking and championship aspirations out of the gates.

They finished 2008 in the Capital One Bowl and 2004 in the Outback Bowl.

Only 2002 fulfilled the promise with an SEC championship, a Sugar Bowl win and a 13-1 record. If it wasn’t for Miami and Ohio State going undefeated, Georgia could have played for the BCS title that season.

The Bulldogs were in the conversation again in 2007 but had to settle for Hawaii and the Sugar Bowl.

Richt’s sixth-ranked Bulldogs certainly have a trip to Miami on their mind after returning the bulk of a defense and third-year starting quarterback Aaron Murray.

Murray and the defense led the team to a 10-4 record last season, and the Bulldogs reached the SEC title game for the first time since 2005.

Georgia would love to extend the SEC’s streak of national titles to seven on Jan. 7 at Sun Life Stadium.

Senior defensive end Cornelius Washington and some of his teammates are talking unabashedly about a national title.

“Like I told the guys, it just kind of seems like the stars are kind of aligning for us to be able to do a whole lot of great things this year,” Washington said. “We’ve got to put in the work and put in the effort, and I feel like we go out every day and do that.”

“Our goal is to get to Atlanta, to get to Miami and to win,” junior tight end Arthur Lynch said. “(Snapper) Ty Frix said it well the other night. Let’s forget Miami. If you win every single game and you’re in the SEC, you will be national champions.”

The Bulldogs are the pick in the SEC East to return to Atlanta. Even Richt, 106-38 at Georgia with two SEC titles in four title game trips, admits not getting there would be falling short.

“Oh, yeah,” he said. “Absolutely I’d be disappointed. That’s where we want to be.”

Richt isn’t talking up a national title run but didn’t sound bothered that his players were.

“Are they? I want them to shoot high, but I also want them to back up any talk that they have,” he said. “The reality is we haven’t done anything yet. I think they know that. I don’t have a problem with guys dreaming big.”

The schedule is manageable again. A road trip to Missouri in Week Two and a trip to the other Columbia to play South Carolina on the first Saturday of October loom large.

But there is no Alabama, LSU or Arkansas — all top-10 teams — on the schedule again.

“We want to be undefeated when we get to the SEC championship,” safety Shawn Williams said. “It’s going to take a great team, it’s going to take everybody clicking. We just don’t want to set our standards too low.”

The offseason has been filled with news of player dismissals and suspensions.

Running back Isaiah Crowell was booted after felony weapons charges in late June, but freshmen Todd Gurley and Keith Marshall provide hope.

“The thing that I like right this minute is I do like the chemistry of this team right now,” Richt said during the second week of preseason practices. “I like the work ethic of this team right now. I do think we have more leaders than maybe we’ve had in the past. I think their job is not maybe as tough as it’s been in some years in motivating the rest of the pack because I think a lot of those guys individually are motivated. I think they saw the older guys work and kind of joined in. Right now, this minute, we’re working pretty hard.”

Georgia began last season 0-2 after the first losing season — 6-7 — under Richt.

The negativity then has been replaced by a sense of optimism.

“It can be a little worse,” Murray said. “When people are patting you on the back, you start to get a little lazy. The biggest thing we have going for us right now is we have great leadership. … We’re doing the little things right to make sure we win every game.”

College football is going to a four-team playoff in 2014.

That’s two more years left of the BCS championship format for Georgia to try to secure its spot.

“Yeah,” Richt said, “we’d like to be there.”

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