UGA's offseason focus on first two games

ATHENS, Ga. -- Luckily for Mark Richt, he has an opposing coach at an SEC rival to use as the barometer for his Georgia team’s strength of schedule. If the amount of bellyaching by South Carolina’s Steve Spurrier is any gauge, then the Bulldogs must have a tougher schedule on tap this fall than they faced in the previous two seasons.

“We’ve got a tremendous schedule this year, we know,” Richt said. “I don’t hear Coach Spurrier complaining about it this year.”

In truth, Spurrier’s griping was not unfounded. USA Today pollster Jeff Sagarin’s computer rankings last season showed that while Georgia faced the nation’s 27th-most-difficult schedule, 12 of the 14 teams in the SEC played a more difficult slate than the Bulldogs. And the Bulldogs (12-2, 7-1 SEC) took advantage of that benefit, winning their second consecutive SEC East title thanks to a tiebreaker edge over Florida (11-2, 7-1) and a one-game edge over Spurrier’s Gamecocks (11-2, 6-2), who blasted Georgia 35-7 and promptly lost back-to-back games to LSU and Florida.

If Georgia returns to Atlanta for the SEC championship game again this fall, South Carolina’s coach can’t blame it on the Bulldogs’ schedule. Particularly when Georgia faces Clemson, South Carolina and LSU -- teams ranked 11th, eighth and 14th, respectively, in last season’s final Associated Press poll -- before the calendar turns to October.

It’s that early-season stretch that will likely determine Georgia’s ceiling this season. And thus the Bulldogs’ coaches aren’t looking far beyond the first two games.

Offensive coordinator Mike Bobo joked at a fan gathering last month that he didn’t even know who Georgia played after the South Carolina game in Week 2. And Richt confirmed that his coaching staff won’t focus far beyond those two games this offseason, either, although that is their typical pattern.

“Right about this time of year, right after our coaches get off the road in recruiting before the summertime, they’re going to game plan Clemson and South Carolina. And so they’re going to have that ready before we even get to the installation of the season [in August],” Richt said at the end of May. “Then we’ve got to decide when do we start actually practicing for the first game.

“Usually by the time we get into camp, we’re really not doing a whole lot for game two. We start with game one, but we’ve already got the plan for game two so that when that first game is over, we’re not just going crazy trying to figure out, ‘What are we going to do now?’ The plan will be there -- at least what we thought a few months ago. You can tweak it if you need to.”

Tweaks are always part of the equation when it comes to preseason preparations. Entering his 13th season as Georgia’s coach, Richt has had more than enough time to develop a routine for the crucial August practices that will determine whether the Bulldogs are ready for the Clemson game on Aug. 31. And yet Richt admits that he tinkered with his procedures after commiserating with Atlanta Falcons coach Mike Smith at a 2011 clinic.

The change that drew the most attention immediately after Richt’s meetings with Smith was Georgia adopting ideas from Jon Gordon’s book, “The Energy Bus,” where the Bulldogs worked to ward off “energy vampires” who sucked the life from the program with negative behavior. A less obvious change based on Smith’s advice was how the Bulldogs began practicing situations according to the percentage of time they might be in those situations in an actual game.

“Each coordinator knew that we were practicing these plays the amount of times they actually happen in a real game,” Richt said. “And then we tweaked it by anything we felt like maybe we’re, ‘Hey we were bad in third-and-7 and plus, so even though it’s only 6.9 percent, let’s do it 10 percent because we need to get better at that.’ So I think that we really weren’t too far off, but it gave you some peace to say, ‘Hey, I’m practicing these situations about as often as they occur in a game.’ ”

Richt believes the changes helped the coaches maximize their practice time and emphasize the preparations that most needed their attention. If that’s the case, the added efficiency will come in particularly handy this August, as the Bulldogs don’t have the luxury of a lower-division opponent sitting in the first slot on the schedule.

Games against Clemson and South Carolina to open the season are daunting obstacles for a Georgia program that is 2-4 when facing BCS-conference opposition in the first two games of the season dating back to 2009.

That reality isn’t lost on Richt’s players, who insist that there is a different level of intensity within the locker room this summer compared to last year, when the Bulldogs were preparing to open the season against Buffalo.

“You work a lot harder. You’ve got a mission,” junior receiver Malcolm Mitchell said. “Coming into last season when we played Buffalo first, we still had a mission. We wanted to win the game because you don’t want to lose any games. But it’s a little different when you’re playing a much tougher opponent for the first game. You don’t have a warmup game. We’ve got to come in ready.”