MACON -- Almost two months before the start of the college football season, there's one thing college football athletes agree on - it's never too early to start talking about football.

That's exactly what players from almost every college football program in the state were doing Wednesday at the Georgia Sports Hall of Fame's fourth annual Peach State Pigskin Preview. And they were doing plenty of it.

Valdosta State, Albany State, West Georgia and others from Division II all showed their smiling faces as did their larger brethren, the University of Georgia, Georgia Tech and Georgia Southern.

Offensive guard Andy Tidwell-Neal and defensive end Gerris Wilkerson represented Georgia Tech while the Yellow Jackets' coach, Chan Gailey, was unable to attend for personal reasons.

That didn't stop Tidwell-Neal from expressing the optimism on The Flats in Atlanta for the 2004 season after a youthful bunch turned in a bowl win last year. With 1,000-yard rusher P.J. Daniels and sophomore quarterback Reggie Ball returning, the Jackets' offense is in good shape, Tidwell-Neal said.

"The offensive unit couldn't be more excited about the upcoming season," he said. "Reggie has had a great summer and it will be real interesting to see how we achieve a lot of the success we had last year."

One of the main cogs on the offensive line the last two seasons, Tidwell-Neal says the key to the season will be continuing the solid play on the offensive line after losing Nat Dorsey and Hugh Reilly to the NFL Draft last April.

And of course the senior, who's from Minnesota, couldn't get away without talking about the state's biggest rivalry, while he starred at the Red and Black Georgia helmet sitting on a table across the room.

"Not being from the state of Georgia, you don't really understand what kind of game it is until you play in it," Tidwell-Neal said. "There's bad blood there."

Meanwhile, the boys from Statesboro spent time with media representatives from around the state alongside Georgia Southern head coach Mike Sewak. To sum it up, the Eagles like their chances to make another run at the Division I-AA national title.

"There's a little more fire in the weightroom right now and everybody can't wait to go out there and hit somebody," senior defensive tackle Victor Cabral said.

Georgia Southern also has a date with the Bulldogs to open the season for both clubs on Sept. 4 in Athens, 57 days from today.

But both Cabral and senior offensive tackle Paul Collins agree that the opener won't be the sole determining factor to the Eagles' season.

"We only play (Georgia) once every four years and it's something everybody in Georgia looks forward to," Collins said. "But they're not our goal this year. Our goal is to win the Southern Conference and get back into the national championship standings in I-AA."

Collins, a native of the Athens area, had to admit the battle that crosses classification lines did have a little extra meaning, especially for him.

"Growing up in high school, I went to Georgia games and I was a Bulldog fan," he said. "It's going to be fun playing on the field where I watched the games."

And then there was the table where most of the media attention fell, and for good reason. Georgia head coach Mark Richt, who brought junior offensive tackle Max Jean-Gilles and junior linebacker Odell Thurman, may have had the highest expectations in the room on him after last season's 11-3 record and top five finish.

Thurman wasn't shy about spitting out early predictions.

"Coach (Richt) told me not to talk about it, but I think we've got one of the best defenses in the country," Thurman said. "I feel comfortable with the people I'm playing with right now. We've just got to stay focused. People say our offensive is inexperienced, but I think it's their time, too."

So, is there a must win game? Florida? LSU? Georgia Tech?

"We've got to have all of them," Thurman said.

To his right sat Jean-Gilles, a 6-foot-4, 340-pound monstrosity, who was counting down the minutes to lunchtime. Jean-Gilles, who's from Miami, talked about ending the season in perfect fashion in his hometown, where the national championship will take stage at the Orange Bowl on Jan. 4.

"(The perfect season) would end in Miami with everybody back home in my jersey watching me play," Jean-Gilles said.

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