BIRMINGHAM, Ala. — Despite an offseason packed with negative news that provide great potential for ongoing distractions, Georgia was picked by the SEC media to defend its East Division title.
Since winning the 2002 Southeastern Conference championship, Georgia has had four players suspended for two games following misdemeanor drug charges and nine players declared ineligible — and later reinstated — for selling their championship rings on the internet.
In the tumultuous offseason, Coach Mark Richt also suspended four players for one to three games for undisclosed rules violations and has had a potential starter transfer in a move described as reached “by mutual agreement.’’
Meanwhile, more controversy was generated by University of Georgia president Michael Adams’ decision to deny athletic director Vince Dooley’s request for contract extension.
The flood of negative headlines since the Bulldogs’ Sugar Bowl victory over Florida State last January threaten both to overshadow the accomplishments of the 2002 season and to provide distractions for the new season.
Even so, media picked Georgia to defend its East title in a poll released Thursday. When he addressed reporters Thursday as the annual SEC media days ended, Richt said he hopes there will be a positive fallout from the negative news.
“Some of the things that happened off the field probably helped us get our focus on what is before us on the season,’’ Richt said.
“We were getting a lot of pats on the back. A lot of people were telling us how great we were. I’m not sure we weren’t getting complacent. We were fighting that, but we didn’t want to move forward. We wanted to relish (the SEC championship).’’
Added Richt: “That gave us a reality check and stopped some of the patting on the back.’’
Defensive tackle David Pollack said players had a chance to address the problems in a team meeting the first week of summer school.
“We talked about it and we haven’t talked about it since,’’ Pollack said.
“We talked about it and had people crying and now it’s all behind us.’’ Pollack would provide no further details of the team meeting, saying “That’s something we did as a family. ... It’s not something everybody needs to know about.’’
Richt called the meeting an “open forum.’’
“We said ‘If you have a problem, let’s air it right now ... When we walk out of this room, we’re a unified group,’ ’’ Richt said.
“It was a chance for players and others maybe to apologize for what happened. When we walked out of there, I really believe we were that much more focused.’’
The ring controversy generated the most publicity, but the eight suspensions could take the greater toll on the team.
Backup running back Tyson Browning was suspended for three games and three players — fullback Chris Hickman, linebacker Jamario Smith and cornerback B.J. Fields — were suspended for one game for undisclosed violations of team rules.
Cornerbacks Tim Jennings and DeMario Minter, receiver Mario Raley and center Randall Swoopes face two-game suspensions for their arrests on marijuana possession charges. Swoopes later transferred to Georgia Military College.
Due to the suspensions, Georgia will face potential depth problems early in the season, especially in its Aug. 30 season opener at Clemson.
Even so, Richt said he believes the overall impact of the offseason of unrest will be positive.
“In hindsight, this whole thing may have become a blessing for this whole 2003 season,’’ Richt said. “I may be wrong, but I really believe that.’’