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ATHENS, Ga. -- Georgia heard the expectations on the field at the Louisiana Superdome in the moments after its 41-10 rout of Hawaii in the Sugar Bowl. The Bulldogs have lived with them ever since, every single day. Coach Mark Richt has listened to them at summer meetings of Bulldog Clubs across the state. The players have heard them on campus all spring and summer.When you're 20 years old and everyone within a 60-mile radius of Sanford Stadium is telling you how great you're going to be, it would be tempting to assume that the actual playing of the games is a formality. It would be tempting to believe your coronation awaits.
|Mark Richt's experience with expectations could pay dividends to Matt Stafford and the Bulldogs.|
Richt has not had to deal with these expectations in his previous seven seasons at Georgia. In fact, the Bulldogs have not been ranked No. 1 in any Associated Press poll since 1982. But Richt spent his formative years as a coach at Florida State. He worked for Bobby Bowden for 13 of the 14 consecutive seasons (1987 to 2000) in which the Seminoles finished in the top five.Richt grew up in coaching dealing with these expectations. That's how he came to tell his Bulldogs a story about the 1988 Florida State Seminoles. The previous season, Florida State had finished second in the nation to Miami, which had beaten the Seminoles 26-25. Florida State had nearly its entire team return for the 1988 season. The Seminoles spent eight months as the consensus No. 1. The players ate it up. They decided to create a dance video, which would save their greatness for posterity. The Chicago Bears had done just such a thing during the 1985 regular season en route to the Super Bowl. It didn't dawn on the Seminoles that the Bears had danced after their 12-1 start. Florida State hadn't played a game yet.
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Richt, sitting in his office the other day, relished the story the same way he did when he told it to his Georgia team this past spring."Florida State studied the Chicago Bears' rap, 'The Super Bowl Shuffle,'" Richt said. "While we were doing that, Miami was studying the 46 defense, Buddy Ryan's scheme that helped them win the Super Bowl. They had never run it before. They sprang it on us. We had no answer. We had very few answers." The Seminoles played their archrival Hurricanes in the season opener as if they didn't know even the questions. Miami won 31-0. Richt called it "the hardest lesson that Florida State ever learned." After Richt told the Bulldogs the story, he showed them "The Seminole Rap." "I was just trying to send the message that if you get too full of yourself, it could come tumbling down in a hurry," Richt said. " I just told them that the preseason blessing could be a blessing or a curse. It will be a curse if you choose to use it as a sense of entitlement, like, 'I don't have to work anymore.' It will be a blessing if it excites you to begin to work like you never worked." As the leaders of the team prepared for August practice, they said all the right things. They understand the lesson of "The Seminole Rap." They understand the 2007 season is the past tense. They know this is a different team. "I'm going on my fourth season here," defensive tackle Jeff Owens said. "I have seen the ups and downs. I have experience at both winning and losing."
|After throwing for 4,272 yards through two seasons, Matt Stafford is facing even higher expectations in 2008.|
In 2006, the Bulldogs lost four of five games, then rallied to win their last three and finish 9-4. In 2007, after being routed at Tennessee 35-14, Georgia stood at only 2-2 in the SEC East. The Dawgs then won their final seven games, tied for the division championship and finished second in the AP rankings. Imaginations, at least those outside the locker room, took off from there."I'm just ready for it to get here," quarterback Matthew Stafford said, "so people will have something to talk about other than, 'What if?' When I go to campus, it's, 'Are y'all going to do it?'" Stafford does sardonic well. "They realize it's set in stone," he said. "Fans think, 'You're preseason No. 1, so you should win it.'" Stafford begins his junior year with outsized expectations on himself in addition to the expectations on his team. NFL scouts go all dreamy when they talk about him. He is 20 years old and maturing before our eyes, as his numbers indicate: two seasons of starting behind him, and career numbers of 4,272 passing yards, 26 touchdowns and 23 interceptions. He also is 17-4 as a starter. Most important, after two years as a young starting quarterback, Stafford can be a team leader without drawing stares from the upperclassmen. At last, he is one. "I just want to see an attitude that nobody is going to beat us," Stafford said. "We understand it's going to be tough. It's going to be hard on everybody. I want to see that same kind of attack mentality we had last season. Not a willingness but a desire to work hard. You've got a reason for doing this. I don't want, 'OK, I'll do it today.' It's, 'OK, I want to do it today.'" Stafford is saying all the right things. But his words, like those the Georgia fans have been saying for months, are just words. The time for action is upon the Bulldogs. "We have our own expectations. We have our own goals," wide receiver Mohamed Massaquoi said. "We are a family. We are a close-knit group of guys. We're in it for Georgia, for family. We have so many good things we want to accomplish." None of them include making a rap video.
Ivan Maisel is a senior writer for ESPN.com. Send your questions and comments to Ivan at email@example.com. His new book, "The Maisel Report: College Football's Most Overrated and Underrated Players, Coaches, Teams, & Traditions," is on sale now.