ATHENS, Ga. (AP) -- All around, the Georgia Bulldogs are surrounded by rivals basking in championship glory.
Florida won a national title, followed by LSU. The Gators took another turn at No. 1. Alabama was next in line. And, finally, it was Auburn hoisting the biggest trophy of all last season.
Even South Carolina, long a Southeastern Conference patsy, rose to prominence under coach Steve Spurrier. He led the Gamecocks to the SEC East crown a year ago, and they're favored to win it again
As for Georgia, it's been a slow, steady slide to irrelevance. If that doesn't change -- probably as soon as this season -- the Bulldogs could be looking for a new coach.
Mark Richt is feeling the heat, and his players know it, too. How could they not?
All they have to do is watch TV, flip on the radio or check out the Internet.
"It's extreme motivation to hear people saying coach Richt might be on the hot seat," defensive end Abry Jones said.
Richt was the toast of the red-and-black world when he led Georgia -- which had not won an SEC title since 1982 -- to a pair of conference championships in his first five years on the job. The program still appeared on the right track as late as 2007.
A strong finish and Sugar Bowl romp left the Bulldogs at No. 2 in the
final rankings, setting up nicely for a run at the top spot with a team led by future first-round draft picks Matthew Stafford and Knowshon Moreno.
Instead, Georgia has gone the wrong way. Richt's teams are barely above .500 in the SEC (13-11) over the last three seasons, and this group is trying to bounce back from a 6-7 debacle -- the school's first losing year since 1996.
While a highly rated recruiting class eased some of the pressure on Richt, his future will come down to how many games he wins. The
players are rallying around him, trying to use the criticism as
"I love my coach. I love this team. I love this university," receiver Tavarres King said. "Any time someone is criticizing them, I feel like they're criticizing me. I take things personal. So, definitely, it's in my ear. I wanna go get it."
With Auburn losing Heisman Trophy winner Cam Newton and Florida
breaking in a new coach, there's certainly an opening for a team such as Georgia to claw its way into the championship mix. Richt shrugs off any speculation about his future and insists that he's optimistic about turning things around.
"Everything is geared toward this season, the excitement of it and the fact that we have a chance to have a great year," he said. "I'm really as optimistic as any year since I've been at Georgia."
The Bulldogs should get a pretty good indication of their chances in the first two weeks of the season. They open against Boise State in the Chick-fil-A kickoff game at Atlanta, only about an hour from campus and essentially a home game.
Then, in the actual home opener, Georgia hosts South Carolina to establish an early balance of power in the SEC East.
"If we win that, we're in the driver's seat," senior center Ben Jones said. "If we lose, we're at the bottom."
Georgia will have to carry on without its best player. A.J. Green left a year early for the NFL, leaving a huge hole in the offense. The Bulldogs don't have one receiver to fill the void, but they're counting on a group effort with King, Marlon Brown and a host of others.
"What's his name again?" King quipped, when asked about Green.
With No. 8 now playing in the NFL, this team firmly belongs to sophomore quarterback Aaron Murray, who is coming off a stellar
season that showed both his potential and his toughness.
Hardly looking like a redshirt freshman, he completed more than 61 percent of his passes for 3,049 yards, with 24 touchdowns and just eight interceptions. Murray also impressed teammates with his
willingness to take off running when no one was open -- and plow
into a larger defender if he could pick up an extra yard or two.
Richt would prefer that Murray be a little more cautious with his body, but there's nothing else to quibble about with this natural-born leader.
"His performance was always on a point," cornerback Brandon
Boykin said. "You saw guys hitting him in the face and he's bleeding from the chin, which showed how tough he is. He was always
working hard in the weight room, right there with us running sprints. That's the type of person you want leading your team."
Richt expects Murray to be even better this season, even though he won't have Green on the receiving end of his throws.
"I think he'll recognize things quicker, which will mean throwing more routes on time, on rhythm," the coach said. "I think his accuracy will improve because of his comfort level in what we're doing. He's already improved in that everybody really believes in the guy. They wanted to believe in him last year. Now, there's no question he's a leader of the team."
There could be some bumps along the way, however. In addition to
losing Green, Murray will be handing the ball to a new lead runner
after Washaun Ealey and Caleb King both left the program. Isaiah
Crowell, the team's most prized recruit, would wind up starting in
his very first game.
With all the newcomers on offense, Georgia will count on its defense to carry more of the load than it did a year ago. The players are certainly more comfortable with coordinator Todd Grantham's 3-4 scheme, and they appear to have landed the prototype nose guard in 340-pound junior college signee Jonathan Jenkins.
"You can tell there's a real major difference," Jones said. "Everyone is on the same page all the way through."