HOOVER, Ala. — The Georgia Bulldogs were still celebrating a Sugar Bowl victory when the national title talk started.
A mere year in advance.
"That’s too long to be chewing on that bone," protested Bulldogs coach Mark Richt on Thursday at Southeastern Conference media days.
Sorry, coach. It’s your turn.
Judging by preseason — and postseason — buzz, Georgia might just be the best bet to bring the powerhouse SEC a third-straight national championship and a fourth since 2003.
Two big reasons: Stars like tailback Knowshon Moreno and quarterback Matthew Stafford among 17 returning starters, a runner-up finish to LSU in January, capped by a blowout Sugar Bowl win over Hawaii.
The challenges, which Richt rattles off much more readily: Road games at Arizona State, defending champ LSU and Auburn. A grudge match with Florida, which won the national title two years ago but lost to the Bulldogs last season.
"Here’s our deal: We know everybody on our schedule can beat us," Richt said. "We know everybody in our division can and has beaten us.
"Everybody we play, they all know how to win. We don’t sit there and say we got this one and that one and boy that will be a tough one. We know they’re all going to be tough. When we win games, I feel relief. I know every victory’s a tough one."
Especially in the SEC, where teams take turns battering each other around for eight Saturdays each season. Not to mention the league championship game, which Georgia didn’t even make in 2007.
"It seems like we just knock each other out week in and week out," Bulldogs defensive tackle Jeff Owens said. "But who knows who’s going to play for the national championship in January. There’s a long road ahead."
And, of course, a lot of potential roadblocks.
Tennessee’s Phillip Fulmer, the dean of current SEC coaches, said the league is in the best shape of his 16-year tenure. He’s one of five SEC head men who have won national titles, joining South Carolina’s Steve Spurrier (at Florida), Alabama’s Nick Saban (at LSU), LSU’s Les Miles and Florida’s Urban Meyer. Three are in the SEC East.
"I guess we just happen to be playing in the best division in the best conference in the entire country," said Fulmer, who won it all in 1998.
The West isn’t bad either. LSU won national titles in 2003 and ‘07, and Auburn’s ‘04 team was unbeaten but didn’t get to play for the BCS title. Plus, former Louisville and Atlanta Falcons coach Bobby Petrino has taken over at Arkansas.
"Our conference is the toughest conference in the country," Mississippi State coach Sylvester Croom said. "We’ve got more national championships, we’ve got more players in the pros. So our talent level in this conference is the best in the country. The quality of our coaches is the best in the country."
While Georgia seems to have the fewest question marks, Florida and LSU are also projected as highly ranked teams opening the season.
The Bulldogs incidentally play those teams in consecutive weeks Oct. 25 and Nov. 1. They can consider themselves marked men.
"I think it will be a very big game to say the least," Florida quarterback Tim Tebow said. "It could be (two of the) top few teams in the country playing that game with the right to play in the SEC, maybe national championship, for the winner of that game. They’ve got a great team."
LSU defensive end Tyson Jackson said the Tigers aren’t wasting time admiring their championship rings. Miles won’t let them.
"When we got our rings in June, Coach Miles told us to move on and put it behind us," Jackson said. "It’s really not hard to move forward if you have a team that is hungry like we are. We know what we have to do."
Richt knows what his team has to do too: Handle the hype. At least four preseason publications have picked the Bulldogs preseason No. 1.
"It’s a curse if you think it gives you a sense of entitlement to where you think you don’t have to prepare," Richt said. "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."