Georgia head coach Mark Richt celebrates in the end zone following an NCAA college football game against Auburn Saturday, Nov. 12, 2011 in Athens, Ga. Georgia won 45-7. (AP Photo/David Goldman)
ATHENS -- Mark Richt says his upbeat message to his Georgia players at the team's lowest point of the season came to him quickly because it was "very heartfelt."
Richt said Tuesday he told his players after a Sept. 10 loss to South Carolina he was more convinced than ever they could be a special team, even when the 0-2 start left little reason for optimism.
"I go back to the locker room after the game and I basically said, 'Men, just don't put your heads down,"' Richt said. "Don't lose heart. We've got a chance to be a good team."'
Richt's players responded with a dramatic recovery. No. 13 Georgia has won eight straight games and can clinch a spot in the Southeastern Conference championship game by beating Kentucky on Saturday.
The turnaround is redemption for Richt, who began the season on the hot seat. He said he didn't want his players to worry about his future, especially after the 0-2 start.
Richt said he told his players "Don't focus on anything swirling around -- good or bad. Just do your job.
"So I kind of have been in that mindset and I'm still in that mindset right now. I'm not sitting here saying that there's been any moment in time that I've had some kind of weight lifted. I'm just trying to finish the drill. I'm trying to do my job."
Georgia (8-2 overall, 6-1 SEC) is trying to advance to its fourth SEC championship game in Richt's 11 years. Georgia ended a 20-year drought by winning the SEC championship in 2002 before losing in the 2003 title game and then winning another championship in 2005.
This team's path to the brink of SEC championship game is notable. Georgia has wins over Tennessee, Florida and Auburn in the same season for the first time since 1981. It has won six straight conference games for the first time since 1982 and eight straight overall for the first time since 2002.
Offensive guard Chris Burnette said Richt helped keep the focus on the future.
"I think coach Richt and the seniors just focused so much on 'Don't dwell on the past,"' Burnette said Tuesday. "Just focus on what we can control and then the rest will play out.
"I think the fact he stressed that so much allowed us to kind of relax and just continue to work hard and focus on what was important. I think just realizing that, it can take a lot of weight off your shoulders and make you not doubt yourself and not doubt your teammates and not doubt the coaches and what they're trying to tell you. I think coach Richt doing that from the get-go was really important."
The 45-42 loss to South Carolina was devastating, but Richt said he saw a Georgia team that could have won if it not for three turnovers.
Richt said he told his team "we have the right stuff."
Added Richt: "Now, what are we going to do with it? Are we going to keep grinding and keep believing, or are we going to fall apart and start feeling sorry for ourselves and start pointing fingers?"
The bad start was especially difficult because Georgia was coming off a 6-7 finish in 2010.
"Obviously being 0-2 and we hadn't won a game in 10 months, that was just dragging people down," said punter Drew Butler, who said a 59-0 win over Coastal Carolina "got people back to feeling what winning is like."
"People really enjoyed that and I think when we started winning a lot of games, everybody really believed what coach Richt was saying and believed what the senior leaders were saying and that helped us get going."
Richt said turnovers are the most important factor in Georgia's winning streak. Georgia has not lost the turnover battle in any of its eight straight wins, including last week's 45-7 rout of then-No. 24 Auburn.
Aaron Murray has a school-record 27 touchdown passes with only eight interceptions.
Georgia also is winning with defense. The Bulldogs are No. 4 in the nation in total defense. Linebacker Jarvis Jones leads the SEC with 10 sacks. Safety Bacarri Rambo is second in the nation with seven interceptions, including one he returned for a touchdown against Auburn.
Richt's confidence in his players has been rewarded. He said he expects his team to keep its focus as it prepares to play Kentucky in Georgia's final home game.
"We know what's at stake," Richt said. "I think our guys are going to continue to stay focused throughout the week. I can't imagine them going backward now."
Added Richt: "We're in a good place right now."