Back on the map: Despite setbacks, Georgia trying to play a key role in the SEC race

ATHENS — No one commissioned a T-shirt. They don’t go running around loudly proclaiming any new slogan.

But, after two straight disappointing seasons, it’s easy to spot the common phrase in the following quotes from Georgia football players:

Sophomore cornerback Branden Smith said, “We just want to put Georgia back on the map.”

Senior offensive tackle Josh Davis said, “If everyone does what they’re supposed to do and what they’re capable of, we will be back on the map.”

Freshman safety Alec Ogletree said, “That’s a big task for us, trying to put Georgia back on the map nationally.”

Official or not, the Bulldogs do appear to have a calling as they begin their 2010 season.

It was a rough offseason, notably with nine arrests of Georgia players — the latest on Friday, being Ogletree, who is suspended for Saturday’s opener against Louisiana-Lafayette. There was also the firing of Willie Martinez as defensive coordinator, and he was replaced by Todd Grantham.

None of that has made for putting Georgia back on the map in a good way. Nor have all the mentions, in the lead-up to the season, of head coach Mark Richt being on the hot seat.

But Georgia players say they’re determined — although they only tend to say it when asked — to make this the year they return the Bulldogs to glory.

“Some people have begun to be naysayers, say that we’re not the same program that we once were,” senior receiver Kris Durham said. “But at the same time I feel like we do have the talent, we do have the ability to put ourselves back up there.”

Two years ago at this time, Georgia was first on the national map. It was the preseason No. 1 in both major polls but failed to fulfill expectations and finished 10-3.

Last year the Bulldogs started out No. 13 but finished 8-5, tied for the fewest wins in Richt’s tenure in Athens.

This year, Georgia begins No. 23 in the AP poll, the lowest since Richt’s first year, 2001, when it was unranked.

“We wanna earn that respect back,” senior defensive end Demarcus Dobbs said. “Especially for the senior class, we wanna go out with a bang. We always said, ever since ’06, that we wanted to be the best class that ever came through Georgia, but we’ve done nothing to prove that. We’re ready to gain our respect back and be at the top, where Georgia once was.”

This is a milestone year for Richt, his 10th at Georgia. Only eight other head coaches in Division I FBS play have more continuous longevity at their current school, and they have names like Paterno, Beamer, Brown and Stoops.

Richt began in the 2001 season, the same year as five other coaches who remain at the schools that hired them: Ohio State’s Jim Tressel, Maryland’s Ralph Friedgen, Missouri’s Greg Pinkel, Rutgers’ Greg Schiano and Wake Forest’s Jim Grobe.

Tressel is the only one of that group who has a better record than Richt. The Ohio State head coach, with one national title in that time and two other BCS game appearances, is 95-21 in his tenure. Richt is 90-27.

Richt, who also turned 50 this year, called the 10-year mark “kinda neat” but thinks it went by fairly fast.

“I’m very, very comfortable here. But it does seem like it came fast,” Richt said this week. “Sometimes I’ll see a former player, and they’ll be like, ‘Yeah that was seven years ago.’ And I’m like, ‘Seven years ago? Wow, that’s a long time.’ But that’s what you always hope for, that you coach for a long enough time to see them as freshmen to senior.”

One of those seniors is Davis, the starting right tackle. The Bulldogs have gone a combined 29-10 during Davis’ three years of playing, but they have also seen their win totals decrease each year.

“Georgia has a great tradition of being a great team in the country. That hasn’t taken place in the last couple years,” Davis said. “We know as a team what we’re capable of. And if everyone does what they’re supposed to do and what they’re capable of, we will be back on the map. We will be back to being nationally-known, and nationally respected.”