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Strong finish has Richt hopeful

    Georgia got a chance to see how the other half lives. Now, after knocking off three straight ranked teams to end the season, coach Mark Richt believes the Bulldogs are positioned to make another championship run in 2007.
    While Georgia failed to defend its Southeastern Conference title, Richt had no complaints after wins over Auburn, Georgia Tech and Virginia Tech gave his team plenty of momentum heading into next season.
    ‘‘We know we were very close to being an 11-2 ball club, but we were also close to having a losing record,’’ Richt said. ‘‘This was not a whole lot different from the other years. We just didn’t win some of the close ones.’’
    The Bulldogs (9-4) came on strong at the end of the season after a stretch of four losses in five games ruined any hopes of winning their third SEC title of the Richt era.
    Georgia struggled to settle on a quarterback, but got it together when heralded freshman Matthew Stafford took over the job for good after senior Joe Tereshinski and redshirt freshman Joe Cox got a crack at starting.
    Richt also made a major change near the end of the season, turning over the play-calling duties to assistant Mike Bobo. He was running the offense when Stafford directed a late touchdown drive to beat Georgia Tech for the sixth year in a row, and did another solid job when the Bulldogs rallied in the second half to knock off Virginia Tech in the Chick-fil-A Bowl.
    Between those games, Bobo was promoted to offensive coordinator when Neil Callaway accepted the head coaching job at UAB.
    ‘‘Anyone in a leadership role instantly has some authority because of their title, but over time if you don’t produce your ability to lead struggles,’’ Richt said. ‘‘For him to be very productive in a big game against a great defense gives confidence that he can handle the position. It was a great start, and one that can breed confidence in himself and everyone around him.’’
    A couple of juniors, defensive tackle Charles Johnson and reserve running back Danny Ware, decided to leave school a year early to enter the NFL draft. But the Bulldogs got a boost Wednesday when cornerback Paul Oliver decided to stay for another year.
    ‘‘We have some good momentum and I’m excited about the team we could have next season,’’ Oliver said.
    Richt’s biggest concern going into next season is the offensive line, which struggled at times and will have to replace three senior starters: center Nick Jones and tackles Daniel Inman and Ken Shackleford.
    The Bulldogs might turn to the junior-college ranks in hopes of getting some immediate help, and several incoming freshmen will probably have to play right away.
    ‘‘We will be fortunate getting guys in midyear and in (fall) camp who will give us some depth,’’ Richt said. ‘‘If that comes together, I think we’ve got a good chance to be good in other positions offensively.’’
    Stafford got off to a slow start, but he gave a tantalizing glimpse of his enormous potential in those last three games. He’s got all the physical tools and simply needed time to get a better grasp of reading the more complex defensive schemes that college teams threw at him.
    Like all freshman quarterbacks, he also had to learn that he couldn’t make all the throws that he did at the prep ranks. Those guys on the other side of the line were a lot quicker, a lot faster, a lot better.
    Defensively, the Bulldogs will have to replace both ends, Johnson and Quentin Moses, along with their emotional leader, safety Tra Battle, but Richt said there’s enough depth to deal with the losses.
    The defense’s performance over those last three games was as good as the coach has seen.
    ‘‘I can recall some games playing tremendous defense — the Auburn game in 2002 when we had five straight three-and-outs that helped us win,’’ Richt said. ‘‘This reminds me of that performance, only three in a row.’’
    Those midseason woes are now a distant memory for the Bulldogs.
    ‘‘It was such a tough time when we did lose those games and turned the ball over so much,’’ Richt said. ‘‘But it was a time that helped us grow and gave us more confidence in each other. The slogan ’Finish the Drill’ maybe means more now than it has.’’

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