No need to panic in Athens

Georgia fans are well aware of the struggles their team has faced over the last calendar year.

The Bulldogs entered the 2011 season coming off their first losing campaign in 14 years, and they’re off to their first 0-2 start since 1996.

They played in two marquee games to open up what could have been a promising season, and they’ve lost them both. On Saturday, with an opportunity to get an early lead in the SEC East race against South Carolina, the ‘Dawgs fell short.

Head coach Mark Richt, who is just 14-14 in Athens since the beginning of 2009, is attuned to the negativity from fans and media viewing the situation from afar.

Mark RichtICONMark Richt is undoubtedly feeling the pressure in Athens. Can the 'Dawgs turn things around this fall?

He’s also aware that his naysayers may be growing within the program as well.

Which makes it essential that the embattled leader of the ‘Dawgs keep his team focused and his players’ heads up despite the rough start, because this is a Georgia squad that still has a lot to play for this fall.

Sophomore quarterback Aaron Murray, who threw four touchdown passes against the Gamecocks, is maturing with each game he plays, and running back Isaiah Crowell recorded 118 yards on the ground in what could be the first of many big games for the true freshman. Wide receiver Malcolm Mitchell is contributing right away as a first-year player, as well, and the offensive line at least held its own against a deep and talented Gamecocks front.

While the SEC East will be difficult to win this fall — South Carolina owns the tiebreaker over Georgia, while Florida and Tennessee will certainly continue to be tough “outs” week after week — Richt’s bunch can still win a lot of games in 2011.

And, who knows, maybe the Georgia faithful will learn to appreciate Richt’s 96-36 career mark after all.

It's more likely, though, that those with a rooting interest in Georgia will consider this season a major disappointment unless this team does in fact claim the East division.

For that to be a possibility, Todd Grantham’s 3-4 defense has to hold its own despite personnel issues, including the injury to top playmaker Alec Ogletree. Basically, the unit has to fight like hell exactly the way the defense did Saturday in the loss to South Carolina.

And as long as Richt remains balanced amid mounting pressure, his players will continue to believe in him as the face of the program.

And, together, they’ll keep fighting. Not for the detractors, but for themselves.

Email dave.miller@nationalfootballpost.com or follow me on Twitter at Miller_Dave

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