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Mark Richt, Barbeque, And Daring To Hope: Meditations On The Coming Season.

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I had a chance to speak to Mark Richt for a few minutes this summer at the annual Peach State Pigskin Preview. Well, a lot of bloggers and reporters had a chance to speak to him. But I had a chance to stand around talking to him while we were waiting in line for lunch. We were away from the television cameras, the microphones, the sports information staff rushing him from one place to another and wordlessly imploring him not to answer that question about oversigning (which he did, by the way). It was a chance for two guys to hang around and chew the fat. It just so happened that one of us was the coach of the football team on whose performance an unnatural and unhealthy portion of the other’s psychic health rests. I think you can figure out which of us was which.

I’ve seen Coach Richt at a number of these type of get togethers over the years. Bulldog Club Meetings, FCA meetings and media events. Make of it what you will, but one thing was unmistakably different this time: Mark Richt looked tired. Not in the sense that he might have gotten 6 hours of sleep the night before rather than his customary 7. Not in the sense that he had been in the car too long on a roadtrip, or that he had a stubborn head cold that was keeping him a smidge off his game. No, Coach Richt looked weary, like a man who had endured a really hard few months. The quick grin and twinkle in his eye usually displayed at those sort of events just wasn’t there. He mentioned at least twice in the few minutes we shuffled together toward the barbeque and banana pudding (both provided by Satterfield’s of Macon and delicious as always, by the way) how much he was looking forward to the family vacation/mission trip he was going on the next week.

I don’t want this to come out the wrong way. And there’s a substantial chance that it might despite my intentions. But I was glad to see Mark Richt a little worn down. A little frazzled. Not because I want to see him struggle or fail. Heaven knows I want nothing more than for Mark Richt to be the coach of the Georgia Bulldogs for the next 20 years and to retire as the winningest coach the Classic City has ever seen. No, I was glad to see Mark Richt a little beaten down because it showed me that the events of the past two seasons had really hit him personally. It indicated to me that Mark Richt, usually affable and tanned and looking like he just finished 18 holes and is about to hit the beach for some volleyball, has been sitting in darkened film rooms and late night strategy meetings and generally doing the tedious work required to get the Georgia Bulldogs back to the upper echelon of SEC football. When Mark Richt came from Florida State that was what we expected and what we got. A guy known for his command of the X's and O's. The architect of a high octane offense that played for national championships.

I have assiduously avoided the hype surrounding Bulldog football this offseason. Not because I don’t want to believe that things are different now than they were a year ago. I do want to believe that we are better conditioned. I do want to believe that the malcontents and ne’er-do-wells have been expunged and that everyone is singing from the same page in the hymnal (the one displaying Glory Glory, naturally). I do want to believe the players’ assertions that their teammates are buying in, that they’re playing faster now that they know the defense. That Marlon Brown is ready for a breakout season. That Isaiah Crowell is ready. That David Andrews and Watts Dantzler can hold the line if we need them to. I want to believe it all.

However, I cannot bring myself to do so until I see it on the field. That’s the legacy of two seasons of talk about what a great natural leader Joe Cox is and how Cornelius Washington runs a 4.02 forty yard dash at 265 pounds. How everybody is working harder at everything than they've ever worked before. I don’t necessarily  have to see the Georgia Bulldogs beat Boise State on Saturday night to believe this team is on its way back. But I do have to see a team that plays like it gives a damn. I didn’t see that in Memphis on December 31, 2010. I saw a team that had, by the time the final gun sounded, had all it wanted of football season 2010. Until I see a team that fights on the first snap of the game, the last snap of the game, and every snap in between, it’s all just so many pretty words and nice men standing in front of microphones and urinating on my lower extremities while marveling at  this infernal precipitation we’re having.

But admittedly, it feels different this time. Or it feels the same, depending on your perspective. It feels like this team has a quiet confidence. The kind of confidence we saw in 2005. The confidence that comes from knowing that you've put in the preparation time. That the hay is in the barn, so to speak. I saw it in Christian Robinson when I talked to him the same day I talked to Mark Richt. I’d ask him a prying question about the offseason strength and conditioning program. He’d get this far off look in his eyes and evade the question like Knowshon Moreno deadlegging a defender in the open field. He never would say "we’re doing more squats" or "Bean Anderson has permission to eat the stragglers alive" or anything like that. But he gave me the distinct impression that no one is playing around. It was enough for me that he clearly didn’t want to talk about it, or more likely (given C-Rob's generally loquacious nature) had been instructed not to talk about it.

During fall camp we saw the return of two-a-days designed to get in the maximum of 29 practices before opening weekend. We didn’t see photos of horseplay around the swimming pool or relaxed watermelon parties. We also read about a lot of players getting banged up and bruised from the amount of contact going on during August. I cannot tell you how much this pleases me, not to mention Gridskinivus, the Hindu god of American football. He’s very real, by the way. Has 8 arms, throws a mean 12 yard out route. Many representations show Gridskinivus with the face of Bill Walsh and the ass of Bill Parcels, except around Clemson, South Carolina where his face and ass are both hidden by various small nonsequential bills he got from his uncle the ATM repairman. But I digress. If I didn’t know better, the tea leaves would be telling me that serious, grownup football is once again being played in Athens, Georgia.

I usually stay away from predictions for the season as a whole. Too much can happen for such predictions to be at all useful. Players get hurt, suspensions get handed down. Coaches get fired and their teams quit on them. Players step up who you never expected to and take steps back when their teams need them the most. It’s all very fluid and messy and generally the reason college football is so damned fun to watch and write about in the first place.

But everyone and his brother has asked me how this season is going to turn out, so I’m giving it a shot. Pressed for an answer here’s my response. I think the most likely regular season record is 9-3. I think we start the season 1-1, I’m just not certain which is the win and which the loss. Tennessee in Neyland worries me this year because they’ll be looking for the same 2nd year bounce from their whole squad that we’re counting on from our defense. I believe Auburn will be a much better football team by the time we see them than some seem to be giving them credit for. Gus Malzahn’s offenses seem to always be much better in the latter half of the season than the beginning, and that worries me. I think Mississippi State will beat us if we don’t hold onto the ball and if we still haven’t figured out a way to stop Chris Relf on 3rd and 12. Not to mention the checkered past of Georgia football the week after coming back from late games on the conference's western fringes (we play Ole Miss the week before in Oxford, it what might well be a 7:00 or 8:00 p.m. eastern kickoff).

However if, and I mean if, some things break our way early, the Bulldogs start 2-0, and this team picks up some momentum, we could be playing for high stakes the latter half of the season. The schedule sets up pretty well with breather games against Coastal Carolina and New Mexico State and an open week before Florida. But we have to get there in one piece. We need the team to get some early affirmation that all the offseason work actually works. That's where these first two games come in.

In other news, I suspect that John Brantley is not quite the walking punch line many (including yours truly) have made him out to be. The World’s Largest Outdoor Cocktail Party will go down as a likely loss in my book until I see otherwise, though I have to admit Will Muschamp has never really impressed me as a tactician. Neither has Charlie Weis, at least in the college ranks. So there’s a very real chance that Florida finishes 8-4 and Gator fans go off the deep end. I would enjoy that very, very much. I don't know if Mark Richt would. I didn't ask him. I figured that even if he saw the potential for schadenfreude, he wasn't going to admit it. Besides, the last time I thought a chace had come for Georgia to ascend above the Gators in the SEC East pecking order, things didn't quite turn out like I would have liked.

As Coach Richt and I parted company that afternoon, I suppose I could have thrown in something about how we’re all pulling for him. But frankly I don’t know that all of "us" are. And even if we are, I don’t think that’s necessarily anything he didn’t know. Saying those kinds of things to sports figures reminds me of a story about golfing great Jimmy Demaret. As Demaret was approaching a putt to win a tournament once a spectator screamed from the gallery "Knock it in Jimmy! I’ve got 5 bucks riding on you!" Demaret, obviously annoyed replied, "You don’t say! ‘Cause I’ve got $5000 on me!" No one wants Mark Richt’s Georgia Bulldogs to succeed more than Mark Richt. So instead, I once again shouted to him that I hoped his vacation was relaxing. He gave me a wan sort of smile, thanked me for the sentiment, and said he was sure he would. And then we both went back to preparing for the start of football season, each in his own way.

To all of you out there who make this site the best it can be. Thank you. And . . .

Go 'Dawgs!!!