Richt: This is new UGA team

On Tuesday, South Carolina defensive end and Heisman Trophy candidate Jadeveon Clowney identified Florida as the Gamecocks’ biggest competition in the SEC’s Eastern Division. He also labeled Georgia quarterback Aaron Murray as one of several players who are scared when playing against him.

On Wednesday, new Kentucky coach Mark Stoops mentioned two teams that he expected to stand out in the East — South Carolina and Florida.

On Thursday, after two long days at SEC Media Days, the Georgia Bulldogs were finally recognized for what they are — the two-time defending SEC East Champions. The media contingent in Hoover, Ala., finally intervened to give credence to the Bulldogs as 149 of the 243 voters selected Georgia to win the SEC East. That news quietly broke while Georgia fans wondered how Aaron Murray failed to make first or second team All-SEC.

UGA has flown completely under the radar this week and it’s a safe bet that Mark Richt is pleased with this lack of attention. His team isn’t generating the hype one might expect, and he’s downplaying expectations.

When asked how his team is using last season’s heartbreaking loss to Alabama as motivation Richt made one thing abundantly clear: that was last year.

“The biggest thing for us is to understand that this is a new team,” Richt said.

He later added, “We can’t dwell on (the SEC Championship Game) in a positive or negative way.”

Fortunately for Richt, this new team has a solid foundation in the form of a returning offense that is largely intact and loaded with talent. Richt raved about Murray’s year-round approach to improving as a passer and as a leader. He acknowledged the benefits of returning a cohesive offensive line that he praised for getting stronger and more knowledgeable of the offensive.

Georgia tight end Arthur Lynch was selected as preseason first team All-SEC and will be joined by a host of returning receivers. Todd Gurley and Keith Marshall return to balance out Georgia’s offensive attack on the ground, and Richt spoke glowingly on Thursday of their offseason development and their desire to compete.

The defense will be practically unrecognizable with stars like Jarvis Jones, Alec Ogletree and Bacarri Rambo departed (along with nine other players with starting experience). Richt described the defense as physically “leaner” than last year’s squad, but indicated that this year’s unit possesses more speed.

Garrison Smith, Jordan Jenkins, Amarlo Herrera and Damian Swann all return after making significant defensive contributions last season, but Richt acknowledged that this is a team clouded with questions. Nonetheless he expressed confidence in the defense’s potential.

“I think we have the ingredients to answer those questions,” Richt said.

This is a new team, and this new team has a daunting task at hand beginning Aug. 31 at Clemson. Richt challenged his team to be in mid-season form by Day 1. All indications on Thursday were that the plan is progressing as anticipated. Undoubtedly part of that plan for Richt and company is staying under the radar.

In that regard, Clowney’s comments and Stoops’ slight are probably part of the plan as well. And if this new Georgia Bulldog team sticks to the blueprint, it will find itself right where the media tabbed it to finish – at the top of the SEC East.

After Richt left the podium, Murray spoke at length about ongoing improvements made by the offense and the defense throughout the Spring and Summer. He insisted that he came back for one reason and one reason only — to win a national championship. He didn’t sound scared when he said it.

“I think (Clowney’s) having fun and I’m sure he was saying it while he was smiling and grinning,” Richt said. “I think we need to let guys have some fun.”