(AP) – Mark Richt has heard criticism from Georgia fans impatient for a championship and especially tired of losing to Alabama.
Richt said Tuesday he understands the complaints.
”I don’t blame people for being critical of what happened on Saturday,” Richt said. ”I don’t at all. I love the passion of our fans that they care enough. I really do. But we’re more critical than they are as far as you look at yourself in the mirror and say you didn’t get the job done.”
Following last week’s 38-10 loss to Alabama, No. 19 Georgia will play at Tennessee on Saturday.
Richt said the loss ”certainly gets everybody’s attention” for the Tennessee game.
Instead of being undefeated and at the top of the SEC’s Eastern Division, Georgia (4-1, 2-1) trails Florida.
The loss triggered old questions about Georgia’s inability to win the biggest games under Richt – especially against Alabama. Georgia was ranked No. 1 in 2008 when Alabama raced to a 31-0 halftime lead and won 41-30 at Sanford Stadium.
The Bulldogs won two SEC championships early in Richt’s era, but the last title came in 2005. Georgia lost in the 2011 and 2012 SEC championship games. The 2012 loss was to Alabama.
Senior Malcolm Mitchell said he understands the fans’ frustrations.
”With some of the losses we’ve faced, fans do get upset, which they should,” Mitchell said. ”Anytime you give your all emotionally to a team and they don’t perform well, you feel bad.”
Mitchell said he received only positive feedback from fans.
”I know after Saturday, I got several messages on social media with fans being supportive, encouraging us to keep moving forward,” he said.
Richt said last week’s loss will be a teaching tool. He said players and coaches will be motivated to avoid ”the feeling that you just don’t want to feel again.”
”We do feel like we put it behind us,” Richt said. ”We feel like we’ve made the corrections we need to make and we’re moving forward and hopefully be better because of the changes.”
Richt has tried to shift the focus to Tennessee. He allowed room to second-guess one coaching decision in the Alabama game, which was played in heavy rain that made the grass field less stable.
Richt said Georgia shouldn’t have tried to run around Alabama’s defense on the soggy field.
”I think strategically, we’d have been better off trying to go downhill more than try to go outside,” Richt said.
Tailback Nick Chubb quickly agreed when told what Richt said.
”Yeah, I thought we should go right at them,” Chubb said. ”I trust the coaches and what they’re going to call.”
Chubb still ran for 146 yards. Georgia’s only touchdown came on Chubb’s 83-yard run in the second half. It gave him 13 straight games with at least 100 yards rushing, tying Herschel Walker’s school record. Georgia’s list of Walker’s streak includes the 1981 Sugar Bowl.
Mitchell said Georgia can protect its championship hopes if it regroups quickly. Another loss at Tennessee would be more devastating.
”The worst thing you can do is let something that happened the previous week affect you in the weeks to come,” Mitchell said. ”That’s when your season goes downhill.”
The loss was especially humbling for Georgia’s offense.
Quarterback Grayson Lambert completed only 10 of 24 passes for 86 yards. Brice Ramsey replaced Lambert but completed only one pass and had two interceptions.
Richt said Lambert will start against Tennessee (2-3, 0-2), which was ranked 25th to start the season but has blown two-touchdown leads in three of its last four games to fall below .500.
”When you take the emotion out of it, I still see us improving as a football team,” coach Butch Jones said. ”I still see us getting better week in and week out.”
There have been only 17 games all season in which an FBS team lost after leading by at least 13 points. Tennessee has dropped three of them, including last week’s 24-20 defeat to Arkansas.
”You really in these times find out who’s with you, who’s against you,” Jones said. ”You just write it down, you put it in your back pocket and you file it away for future reference. We’re going to be fine. We’ve got a resilient group of kids, and we’re going to continue to make progress and move forward.”
The tailspin leaves Tennessee needing to make a second-half surge for the second straight season. Last year, Tennessee started 3-5 before winning four of its last five games to end a string of four straight losing seasons.
”No one’s going to give up,” junior linebacker Jalen Reeves-Maybin said. ”No one’s going to quit. It’s going to be fun seeing how this season ends (up), how the season turns out because there are a lot of people doubting us right now. All we’ve got are the guys in our room depending on each other. We’ll finish strong.”
The recent history of the Georgia-Tennessee rivalry suggests Saturday’s game could come down to whether the Vols improve their fourth-quarter performance. Although Georgia has beaten Tennessee five straight times, each of the last two games has been decided by only three points.
”It’s going to go down to the wire,” Richt said. ”It’s not going to be any different than in years past.”
Tennessee wide receiver Marquez North is expected to return after missing the Arkansas game with lower back stiffness.
Fellow wideout Alton ”Pig” Howard, however, was kicked off the team Wednesday for a violation of unspecified team rules. Howard led the Vols last season with 54 catches for 618 yards, but he had only one reception this year after missing the last two games with a concussion and being suspended for the season opener for a team rules violation.