ATHENS, Ga. -- Georgia has been nationally ranked far more often than not in Mark Richt's coaching tenure, but Thursday's No. 22 listing in the USA Today coaches' preseason football poll came as a surprise to most of the Bulldogs.
"I didn't think we would be that high since we didn't do well last year," junior defensive end Abry Jones said. "I guess it's good to see people still have faith in us. A lot of people think highly of the Georgia tradition and think highly of Coach Richt and that he can get us back on track."
Despite a 6-7 season that culminated with a lackluster loss to Central Florida in the Liberty Bowl, the Bulldogs will start out ranked for a 10th consecutive year. They are among eight Southeastern Conference teams in the USA Today poll, which has a top five of Oklahoma, Alabama, Oregon, LSU and Florida State.
Also from the SEC are No. 12 South Carolina, No. 14 Arkansas, No. 19 Auburn, No. 20 Mississippi State and No. 23 Florida.
Auburn is the only one of the ranked SEC teams that has to face the other seven. Georgia is the only one playing just four, as the Bulldogs will avoid Alabama, Arkansas and LSU.
"I'm shocked, but I think people believe in us," senior center Ben Jones said. "They're not counting us out, because we lost a lot of games by three and seven points. If we would have made the play in the fourth quarter, we would have been the team that's 10-3 instead of going 6-7."
The No. 22 preseason rank is Georgia's lowest in the USA Today poll since Richt's first season in 2001, when the Bulldogs were second among the others receiving votes. Georgia started out No. 21 last year and No. 13 in 2009 and was the preseason No. 1 in 2008.
Richt has been forced to defend the state of his program since his team slumped off the field in Memphis. He was asked at SEC media days if the loss to UCF was "devastating" and responded by saying that devastating is when you have to blow things up and start from scratch.
There have been changes in the strength program since last season, as well as departures of players who may not have been fully committed, but Richt's fellow coaches evidently agree that his team may not be far from returning as a national mainstay.
"That's a good sign of respect that coaches feel like Georgia is a Top 25 team," Richt said. "Hopefully we'll rise in the polls as it goes."
Richt gave his team a fiery 20-minute speech Wednesday night that still was resonating Thursday. He referred to the preseason of 2002, when Georgia was on the verge of ending a 20-year SEC title drought, and added that it's been too long since the team's last league crown in 2005.
"He was pumped up and energized, and it was motivating," sophomore quarterback Aaron Murray said. "Coach Richt was ready to go fight someone right now. I know he has the right mindset. I talked to some other players, and they loved it, too."
The Bulldogs open their season Sept. 3 against Boise State in the Georgia Dome. Boise State is No. 7 in the USA Today poll, and a win over the Broncos would result in Georgia being ranked and nobody being surprised by it.
"Maybe it's not where people might have thought we would be," junior inside linebacker Christian Robinson said, "but we have the tools to have a really high ranking and beat a lot of good teams."
Said junior flanker Tavarres King: "I'm not shocked that we're ranked. We're still Georgia, and I think everybody knows that."
David Paschall is a sports writer for the Times Free Press. He started at the Chattanooga Free Press in 1990 and was part of the Times Free Press when the paper started in 1999. David covers University of Georgia football, as well as SEC football recruiting, SEC basketball, Chattanooga Lookouts baseball and other sports stories. He is a Chattanooga native and graduate of the Baylor School and Auburn University. David has received numerous honors for ...