HOOVER, Ala. — The SEC and national championship talk began shortly after the Sugar Bowl ended.
After closing out the season with seven consecutive victories, including 41-10 over Hawaii in the Sugar Bowl, an 11-2 record and a No. 2 national ranking, Georgia immediately became a favorite to win it all.
Just check out the preseason magazines. Or walk the streets of Athens. Or anywhere in Georgia for that matter.
"It's hard to avoid it," senior wide receiver Mohamed Massaquoi said during Thursday's SEC Media Days. "It's always in your face, but the thing is, you can't get overwhelmed with it. You have to focus on what's the ultimate goal, and that's to win it all. A lot of teams start out No. 1, and they kind of get derailed throughout the course of the season."
Coach Mark Richt has decided to allow the Bulldogs to enjoy the hype for now. As long as they understand there's a fine line between enjoying it and believing it.
"I told the players that this preseason hype could be a blessing or a curse," said Richt, who is entering his eighth season at Georgia. "It's a curse if you think it gives you a sense of entitlement to where you think you don't have to prepare. It could be a blessing if you look at it as one of the greatest opportunities of your life and you put the work in to even be in position to have a chance."
Georgia returns 17 starters, including junior quarterback Matthew Stafford, who threw for 2,523 yards and 19 touchdowns last season, and SEC freshman of the year Knowshon Moreno, who rushed for 1,334 yards. Add a young offensive line that gained a lot of experience last season and a stellar defense, and it's easy to understand the love affair with Georgia.
But Richt insists looks are deceiving.
"We could be starting four sophomores and a true freshman, and we've got one safety that is really game-ready, so that's a bit of a concern," he said. "Knowshon is a heck of a tailback, but I have no other game experience behind him. So what looks like a tremendous strength may not be, if he tweaks his ankle and is out three weeks."
And then there's the schedule. The Bulldogs will play one of the toughest in the nation with games at South Carolina, Arizona State, LSU and Auburn, and against Alabama, Tennessee, Florida and Georgia Tech. They open Aug. 30 against Georgia Southern. Richt pointed out that his opponents' coaches have accounted for nine national championships.
"The expectations are high, but we know we can't get the big head," senior defensive tackle Jeff Owens of Sunrise said. "We can't control who plays in January; we're still in July. You can't look in the future and know what's going to happen. All we can control is playing Georgia football and trying to get better week in and week out. First of all, we have to look at Georgia Southern. They are going to come in and try to upset us. It's like Appalachian State did Michigan."
So for now, they will enjoy the hype while focusing on the present.
"If you think too far down the road and you don't prepare on a daily basis and you lose a day or two because you think you're it, you won't be ready when the moment of truth comes," Richt said.
Antonya English can be reached at email@example.com.