The Determination Of The Bulldogs

For the love of God, it was Vanderbilt. Vanderbilt. Yet there were the Bulldogs, jumping up and down like a bunch of lunatics, taunting and trashing the poor saps from Vanderbilt.

Vanderbilt.

“There were so many things wrong with that night,” says Georgia coach Mark Richt. “More than anything, it was embarrassing.”

And eye-opening. This is what it had come to last fall at Georgia: After years of building a program in his stoic, steady image, after years of winning championships and doing it all with respect and integrity, Richt found himself grabbing players by their jerseys and yanking them away from the scrum as they jumped up and down on the midfield logo at Vanderbilt Stadium after a last-second victory over a double-digit underdog.

Since when did Georgia, a heavyweight in the big, bad SEC, thump its chest after beating the league’s tomato can with a late field goal? Since when did Georgia, which begins every year with the goal of winning it all, settle for the mediocrity of the moment?

It’s like Tom Brady in a Bentley taunting you in your minivan.

“Looking back at it,” says Georgia quarterback Matthew Stafford, “it probably wasn’t the right thing to do.”

Looking back, it changed Georgia’s season — it jump-started a talented but wayward team that quickly righted wrongs, won a BCS bowl and now finds itself as the team to beat going into this season. No team is as balanced as Georgia; no team can match its combination of skill players on offense and speed and experience on defense.

After finishing last year as the nation’s No. 2 team, the Dawgs start this fall as a consensus No. 1. And they can thank Vanderbilt.

For months we’ve heard of Georgia’s cathartic victory last year over Florida, about how the Bulldogs finally found themselves in the big rivalry and … blah, blah, blah. That game would mean nothing without the two games that set it up, the two doses of humility that flipped a switch on a suddenly stale team.

It all began on a steamy night in Knoxville, when wounded Tennessee thumped Georgia for the third time in four years. A year before, Georgia had been 5-0 before a blowout loss to the Vols began an ugly 4-4 finish to the season and some internal strife about the direction of the program.

Nine wins at most programs is cause to celebrate. Nine wins at Georgia translates to reflection and recommitment. The four-loss 2006 season — and a loss to West Virginia in the Sugar Bowl a year earlier — had one of the nation’s most consistent programs reeling. Richt gave play-calling duties to offensive coordinator Mike Bobo and focused more on managing the team.

So last year when the Bulldogs lost at home to South Carolina in Week 2, when Tennessee punked Georgia again, when Richt saw his players dancing — dancing! — after a win over Vanderbilt, the time had come for some serious evaluation. The team that had tanked the previous season was on the verge of doing it again.

“Mark is one of those — what do you call them? — self-realization guys,” says Florida State coach Bobby Bowden, Richt’s mentor and a friend Richt still calls during the season for advice. “Some coaches get so wrapped up in what they’re doing, in doing things their way and not changing, it becomes counterproductive. Part of Mark, I think, was concerned, Could that be happening to me?”

It is here that we introduce Florida week — or as Stafford says, “the week everything changed.” The week Georgia became a complete team because Richt went against everything he believed from the day he started coaching as a graduate assistant at Florida State in the mid-1980s.

Good emotion can fuel a team; bad emotion (see: Vanderbilt) can wreck it. So during the open week before the World’s Largest Outdoor Cocktail Party — with Georgia’s psyche still bruised from the loss to Tennessee, the ugly win at Vanderbilt and the reality that the Bulldogs had lost 15 of the past 17 games to the hated Gators — Richt came up with an idea. A contrived, hokey idea to manufacture passion and keep his team emotionally charged for the biggest game of the season.

After Georgia’s first score against Florida, all 11 players on the field were to celebrate and earn a 15-yard unsportsmanlike conduct penalty — or everyone on the team would be running wind sprints at 6 a.m. Sunday morning in Athens. Seemed easy enough.

“Only somebody in the crowd thought I meant everybody. And everybody went,” Richt says of the Georgia players who flooded onto the field from the sideline. “But when I saw that exuberance, when I saw that energy, when I saw the passion and the fire get unleashed that had been dormant in this football team, I got excited. I got fired up.”

A couple of hours later, Georgia’s shocking 42-30 win featured the most points the Bulldogs had scored in the series since a guy named Herschel ran over the Gators 25 years earlier. A couple of months later — after the Dawgs had reeled off five more wins, including an emasculation of Hawaii in the Sugar Bowl — Georgia president Michael Adams publicly demanded a national playoff because — why else? — Georgia got screwed by the confounding BCS.

So now here we are: The Dawgs are everyone’s preseason No. 1, with a quarterback (Stafford) who could develop into the No. 1 pick in the NFL draft, a tailback (Knowshon Moreno) who’s a preseason Heisman Trophy favorite and a stout defense that brings back memories of the Junkyard Dawgs from decades ago.

Last year’s team won 11 games with a young offensive line and a quarterback still embracing the subtleties of when to play smart and when to take chances. As Stafford grew up, the offense became more balanced and kept teams from focusing on Moreno. By the time Georgia was resting everyone remotely close to the starting lineup in the fourth quarter of the 41-10 rout of Hawaii, expectations for this fall had begun to soar.

It’s a simple formula, really: Sixteen starters return — nine from a top 15 defense — for what will be the best team in the nation’s best conference.

Though, the Bulldogs will have to play without left tackle Trinton Sturdivant, who suffered a season-ending knee injury in a scrimmage on Monday. The sophomore will undergo reconstructive surgery next week and might need a full year of rehab.

But if the BCS controversy of the past two seasons means anything, it’s good to be the lead Dawg in the SEC.

Florida edged out Michigan to gain access to the BCS national title game in 2006 and then won it all. A year later, LSU nudged out every two-loss team on the planet to earn a spot in the national championship game and, of course, has the Waterford crystal to prove it.

“If you can navigate this league,” LSU coach Les Miles says, “you’ve got a pretty good chance to be playing in that big game at the end of the season.”

What a quick ascent it has been for Georgia: from a team teetering on East Division irrelevance in the SEC to a team expected to make it to the national title game. Doesn’t matter that Georgia likely has the toughest schedule in the nation. Or that the Dawgs will travel west of the Mississippi for a nonconference regular-season game (Arizona State) for the first time since 1967.

Or that since January, Georgia has had eight players arrested (six suspended) in what has become an embarrassing side story during what should be a glorious time. Forget that only one starter has been suspended (guard Clint Boling for one game) — the underlying theme is one of uncertainty at the worst possible moment.

Sound familiar? Only this time, SEC punching bag Vandy isn’t around to cure the ills.

“The reputation of this team has been damaged, no question,” Richt says. “There’s no way you can say it hasn’t been a distraction.”

A distraction, yes. A deterrent? Hardly. No Georgia team has begun a season ranked No. 1 in any poll. No Georgia team in decades has had this much talent — from linebacker Dannell Ellerbe to shutdown cornerback Asher Allen to backup tailback Caleb King, a freshman bruiser who played so well in the spring that Richt says he will find a way to get Moreno and King in the backfield at the same time.

This team proved a year ago it can make everything all right at the moment it seems so wrong.

“Things happen for a reason,” says senior defensive tackle Jeff Owens. “Go back to last year, and we shouldn’t have been dancing on Vanderbilt’s ‘V.’ Shoot, we probably shouldn’t have been dancing against Florida. But what’s done is done.”

But it most certainly isn’t. There’s one game that sticks out on Georgia’s brutal schedule, a schedule that includes road games against Arizona State, South Carolina, LSU and Auburn. Maybe it’s best if Florida coach Urban Meyer — whose Gators are among a handful of teams who will challenge for the national title — explains.

“It was uncalled for,” Meyer said this summer of Georgia’s end zone celebration.

In his autobiography Urban’s Way, due out in September, he explains in detail: “It was a bad deal. It will forever be in the mind of Urban Meyer and our football team. We’ll handle it, and it’s going to be a big deal.”

Or, as Florida offensive tackle Phil Trautwein says, “What goes around comes around.”

What’s done is done, all right.

What’s yet to come is even better.

– Courtesy of SportingNews.com

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