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Georgia tries to avoid potholes on road to top

A brutal 2008 schedule follows an off-season that included eight player arrests.

August 15, 2008|David Wharton | Times Staff Writer

Almost two weeks without a Georgia football player getting arrested.

No reports of bar fights, no reckless driving, no urinating in public.

So far, so good.

After an off-season that rivaled Britney Spears for scandalous headlines -- eight players arrested, six suspended -- the nation's top-ranked team has finally reached the relative security of training camp.

"You don't have time to do anything else but try to catch your breath and drink water," cornerback Asher Allen said.

But that doesn't mean life will get any easier for the Bulldogs.

These are heady times in Athens, Ga., where fans have endured almost three decades since the last national championship. Coming off a blowout victory over Hawaii in last season's Sugar Bowl, the hometown team stands atop most preseason polls for the first time ever.

That means more distractions. Higher expectations. And there's the bull's-eye factor, every opponent gunning for an upset.

So when Coach Mark Richt talked about the buzz surrounding his team at the start of camp, he added: "I don't know if that's a good thing or a bad thing."

Georgia's agitated state of affairs strikes a chord at USC, where the football program has recent experience with preseason No. 1 rankings.

"You get a lot of attention," receiver Patrick Turner said.

Coach Pete Carroll said he began preparing for the downside of success as far back as 2001, before the Trojans were actually winning.

"I don't think you can effectively get it done after the fact," he said. "Once you're in the glow, it's too late."

Carroll said he talked to his team about "the Heisman Trophy thing, questions about being on the cover of Sports Illustrated. You explain what it's going to be like."

Not that talking solved everything. There have been player arrests, upset losses and the ongoing NCAA investigation into whether former tailback Reggie Bush accepted improper benefits from a pair of would-be sports marketers.

Still, the USC coach has a theory -- he's big on theories -- about mitigating the rough spots.

He cites psychology professor Albert Bandura, who happens to teach at Stanford, which upset the second-ranked Trojans last season.

Bandura's writings are all about self-efficacy and reciprocal determinism, the notion that behavior can affect environment. A person with a strong sense of self-efficacy will view challenges as something to be overcome rather than avoided, and is therefore more likely to perform well under stress.

For a football team, that translates into acknowledging the distractions and dealing with them.

Sounds plausible, but Bandura never played in the Southeastern Conference.

This season, Georgia faces road games at Louisiana State, Florida and Auburn, plus an early visit to Arizona State. Richt figures those games might be a little tougher given his team's preseason status.

"It's just a big bull's-eye and everybody is really excited about beating No. 1," he said.

On the bright side, the Bulldogs -- who recently lost left tackle Trinton Sturdivant for the season to a knee injury -- still have a slew of returning starters led by junior quarterback Matthew Stafford and sophomore running back Knowshon Moreno, who is drawing comparisons to Herschel Walker.

Like USC, the defense features tough linebackers and a veteran secondary.

And not everyone on the team is willing to concede that being ranked No. 1 in August makes a difference. To Allen and defensive coordinator Willie Martinez, this training camp feels like any other.

"I don't see any of these distractions that people are talking about," Martinez said. "Really, you just go to work every day."

But there's no overlooking that off-season. While Georgia is hardly alone on college football's police blotter, a No. 1 ranking magnifies every glitch. The worst of it occurred just before camp.

On the weekend of Aug. 2, long snapper Jeff Henson was arrested for public intoxication and urinating in public, his second alcohol-related offense. In a separate incident, safety Donavon Baldwin was injured in a bar fight.

Linebacker Darius Dewberry went to the hospital to check on Baldwin and, apparently upset, destroyed several plant pots and smashed through a parking lot swing-arm.

Not with a car, with his body.

Georgia might have avoided this last spasm of unsociable behavior if coaches had decided to open camp over the weekend instead of waiting until the following Monday.

"It was a little bit more of a break and it turned out to be a bad situation as far as giving them another weekend of freedom," Richt told reporters. "It's embarrassing. It's sad."

In addition to the six players suspended, others face mandatory community service and extra work in practice.

Georgia's legal troubles have been duly noted by everydayshouldbesaturday.com, a website that ranks programs by quantity and quality of legal troubles.

A series of robbery and drug-related arrests has put Alabama atop the site's "Fulmer Cup," named after Tennessee Coach Phillip Fulmer. Georgia's accumulated indiscretions vaulted it only as far as seventh place.

At least that's one poll where the Bulldogs don't have to worry about being No. 1.

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david.wharton@latimes.com

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