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Thursday May 28th, 2015 2:02AM

Dogs staring down yet another need for rebound

By The Associated Press
ATHENS -- The Georgia Bulldogs have made a habit of bouncing back from defeat.

Well, here they are again, facing the same predicament.

Georgia opened the season with a 38-35 loss at Clemson in a top 10 matchup, leaving coach Mark Richt's team with very little wiggle room as it prepares for No. 6 South Carolina this week, not to mention No. 9 LSU coming up later in the month.

The defeat sent the Bulldogs tumbling from fifth 11th in the Top 25 rankings released Tuesday.

"It's no fun to lose. It's no fun to lose early," Richt said. "But with the type of schedule we have, there's a risk of that."

Georgia started 0-2 a couple of years ago, losing to Boise State and South Carolina, then ripped off 10 straight wins and claimed the Southeastern Conference East Division title.

Last year, the Bulldogs were blown out by the Gamecocks 35-7 in early October, yet came again came back to reach the SEC title game and nearly pulled off an upset of Alabama that would've sent them to the national championship game.

"We would prefer not to be sitting like we were a couple of years ago," Richt said. "We're going to do our best not to be in that position."

Indeed, the chances of bouncing back from another 0-2 hole seem remote, which puts even more emphasis on Saturday's SEC opener against South Carolina (1-0).

The schedule, to be sure, is not on Georgia's side like it was the last two years.

In 2011, its West Division opponents were perennial back-markers Mississippi and Mississippi State, along with an Auburn program that quickly went into decline after winning the national title. South Carolina squandered its early edge in the division race, getting upset at home by Auburn and falling on the road to Arkansas, a team riding high at the time under soon-to-be-disgraced coach Bobby Petrino.

Last year, after getting crushed by South Carolina, the Bulldogs' only major challenge the rest of the regular season was Florida. The Gamecocks, on the other hand, got a brutal back-to-back gauntlet against LSU and Florida - a pair of road games against Top 10 opponents.

After South Carolina went down twice, Georgia beat the Gators and sneaked by to claim its second straight division title.

This time around, the Gamecocks have now-in-rebuilding-mode Arkansas and Mississippi State as their interdivisional foes, while the Bulldogs' rotating opponent from the West is powerhouse LSU, which opened with an impressive victory over TCU and visits Athens on Sept. 28.

"We did have an easy schedule last year compared to this year," Georgia linebacker Jordan Jenkins conceded.

South Carolina played Willie Nelson's version of "Georgia On My Mind" during its practice Monday, and coach Steve Spurrier knows the Bulldogs will be especially fired up for this one, coming off last week's defeat and three straight losses to the Gamecocks.

"They'll be ready for us," Spurrier said.

The Bulldogs can take solace in having plenty of time to get back in position for their ultimate goal - a national championship. By winning out, they would earn another trip to the SEC title game, which in the last seven years has essentially become a play-in game for the BCS championship.

A year ago, even with that hideous loss to the Gamecocks coming five weeks later in the season, Georgia went into the SEC title game having climbed enough in the rankings to have a shot at playing Notre Dame for the BCS crown. Instead, Alabama held on for a dramatic 32-28 victory, the clock running out with the Bulldogs at the 5-yard line and unable to take one more shot at the winning TD.

"We have a great team," cornerback Damian Swann said. "We still control what we want to do."

So, while the fan base is in a bit of an uproar after the loss to Clemson (one fan even broke down in tears while calling a sports-talk station to complain about Richt's leadership), there's no sense of panic among the players.

They've been through this before.

The offense ran up and down the field against Clemson but must cut out the silly penalties that hindered six possessions. The defense is young and rebuilding, but should get a boost with safety Josh Harvey-Clemons coming back from a suspension and another safety, Corey Moore, expected to play after sitting out the opener with a sprained knee.

"We have a tough team. We've got a close team," said Connor Norman, a former walk-on who started at safety last week in place of the missing. "We don't give up on each other."
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