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White: Richt’s approach the right one

Georgia coach Mark Richt has been on the job long enough to stir up his own brand of preparations for rivalry games.

In his time at Florida State, from a graduate assistant to offensive coordinator, he helped Seminoles coach Bobby Bowden ready his squads to face its fiercest rivals — Florida and Miami, Richt’s alma mater. They were emotional games, no doubt, and ones that meant a lot as those teams traded spots atop the college football world for a period in the 1990s and early 2000s.

Yet even with so many years on the job — he’s now in his 11th season at Georgia alone — Richt said there has been little evolution in the way he prepares for Florida, arguably Georgia’s biggest rival and certainly the most frustrating game on the schedule as the Gators have dominated the rivalry with an 18-3 record through the previous 21 years.

Only a few times has the coach tried out something special for the week before a Florida game — two times he had former Georgia players and coaches lined up to talk at team meetings, he said — but nothing has stuck or even yielded particularly convincing results. So this year, he said Tuesday, is nothing special.

In line with that, maybe the biggest mistake for this year’s team would be to overplay the importance of Saturday’s game, to draw more attention to it and to make it out to be the do-or-die moment that vindicates the Bulldogs’ comeback.

Richt acknowledged as much when he said his team’s sole concern is staying afloat in the Eastern Division, which has been such a meat grinder this fall that the coach was able to minimize the game’s role.

“Our focus is on the Eastern Division; that’s all we’ve really been thinking about, talking about and aspiring to win,” Richt said. “And we know this game could set us back, but it wouldn’t bury us. It wouldn’t bury us. With the way things are happening in our league, it doesn’t count us out. We know if we win it, it doesn’t count us in. So it’s important, it’s huge, and we know we’re in much better shape if we win the game, but there’s no guarantee, win or lose.”

Playing on emotions is out the window, too, as we found out when the coach was asked if last year’s rally was doomed because his team was too caught up in the moment.

“I want to be caught up in the moment knowing what to do, and playing hard, and executing,” Richt said. “But I don’t know how to answer that question other than, ‘(Florida) played better than us.’ ”

That approach appears to have trickled down to Richt’s athletes, several of whom said, at least publicly, they were not deeply concerned with much more than their own ability to continue preparing in light spirits.

“When you’re winning games, you’re having fun,” Murray said. “We’re enjoying practice, and the mood is a lot lighter. And that’s a great feeling when you’re not stressed out and worried about, ‘Oh, we’re 1-4, we need a win, we need a win, we need a win.’ ”

So maybe, if there is a need for something more than the clichéd heads-down, one-game-at-a-time approach, the best motivation might be fear.

Fear that Georgia’s tenuous claim to the top spot in the East could be swept away, fear that they had not come as far as they had hoped and fear that they could very quickly trade places with Florida.

It’s not that much of a stretch, either.

The Gators have lost three straight, but they have come to ranked teams — No. 1 LSU, then-No. 3 Alabama and then-No. 19 Auburn. So what is stopping Georgia from getting too caught up in the history of this rivalry?

It was, after all, just six weeks ago that Georgia was where Florida is, coming off consecutive losses and wondering, even if the thought was fleeting, if the wheels had just come off the season.

“I hadn’t thought about that, but I think that is pretty good symmetry,” Georgia offensive lineman Chris Burnette said. “The fact that, when you lose those games, most of the time you’re just hungry for the win, to get that off your back and just get it off your chest and be able to celebrate with your teammates again. So they’re definitely going to give us 110 percent, and it’s also a big rivalry game, so I wouldn’t expect anything less.”

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