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Richt strives to return UGA to upper echelon

The Associated Press . Georgia coach Mark Richt talks with reporters during SEC Media Days on Thursday in Hoover, Ala.

The Associated Press . Georgia coach Mark Richt talks with reporters during SEC Media Days on Thursday in Hoover, Ala.

HOOVER, Ala.-- All things considered, Mark Richt has overseen an extremely successful decade at Georgia.

But big-time college football has a short memory. And Richt's 14-12 record over the past two seasons -- including a 6-7 mark last year -- has put him squarely on the hot seat in Athens.

Even so, the 51-year-old Richt says there's no uncertainty or discontent as the Bulldogs prepare for the season. Georgia is expected to compete for the SEC Eastern Division title now that sophomore quarterback Aaron Murray has a year of experience and seven defensive starters return.

Richt, who in his 11th season in the league, wasn't fazed by the hundreds of media members on Thursday at SEC Media Days, calmly dealt with questions about his future.

''There's not one sense of gloom and doom,'' Richt said. ''There's only excitement, only guys that are so thankful that we've got a new season and a clean slate and the ability to play some great opponents. Expectations are just as high as they've ever been.''

The Bulldogs will get a few big tests early in the season, playing Boise State in their opener and South Carolina in the SEC opener. Richt said his program's recent decline was a big reason for scheduling such a tough opening game.

''There's a risk in playing a team that can whip your tail because they might just whip your tail,'' Richt said. ''But in order for us to get back to where we want to be, which is highly ranked and highly thought of, we need to play this game.''

Part of the reason the Bulldogs feel good about their chances is Murray's quick rise into the SEC's elite. As a true freshman, the 6-foot-1, 209-pounder ranked third in the conference with 3,049 yards passing. He also threw 24 touchdowns and eight interceptions.

''He's really a coach's dream in how he approaches the game,'' Richt said. ''He understands preparation. He understands team. His motivation is for Georgia to win.''

The Bulldogs also added an influx of talent during the offseason, sometimes dubbed as a "Dream Team" of talented in-state recruits. The most celebrated is running back Isaiah Crowell, who could have an immediate impact like South Carolina's Marcus Lattimore did last season.

''(The freshmen) are talented,'' Murray said. ''There are some tremendous athletes in that class and some tremendous big guys. They're ready to go. They work hard.''

That's helped offset some of the disappointment from a sometimes rocky offseason -- especially for the backfield. The team's leading rusher, Washaun Ealey, left the program in May after two suspensions for disciplinary reasons. Then senior Caleb King, a GAC grad, was declared academically ineligible for the upcoming season.

''Some guys have chosen to move on and a couple guys got a little bit of help,'' Richt said. ''The guys that are still here are really excited about the future.''

Senior center Ben Jones, who will be asked to anchor a largely inexperienced offensive line, said the team takes questions about Richt's job security personally.

''That would just crush us if something happened to Coach Richt because of us,'' Jones said. ''... He's like everything to us. That's a reason a lot of us came to Georgia.''

If Richt is concerned about his future, he didn't show it. Instead, he was more focused on returning Georgia to the conference elite. The Bulldogs haven't won an SEC championship since 2005.

''Greater things are coming,'' Richt said. ''The best is yet to come.''