Courtesy of USA Today:
HOOVER, Ala. — If there’s a game Georgia and Florida football fans have grown used to looking forward to it is the annual showdown in Jacksonville, Fla.
But imagine the hype that could be coming this year? There’s a decent chance the Nov. 1 game will decide the SEC East champion, the SEC champion and possibly even the national champion.
It could be that big. A year ago, the Bulldogs knocked off the defending national champion Gators, 42-30, but had to settle for a 41-10 Sugar Bowl dismantling of Hawaii while LSU went on to the 2007 national title.
A year older, a year wiser and more loaded than ever, UGA fans think this could be the season Mark Richt leads the Dawgs to the national crown. But Richt, 72-19 in his first seven years as the Georgia head coach, isn’t looking that far down the road.
“We always have high expectations,” he said on Thursday at the SEC Media Days. “We always expect to win.”
Richt pointed out that Auburn went undefeated one season and didn’t get in the national title game. But he’s got his own evidence that each week is important after last year. The Bulldogs (11-2) started the ’07 season with two losses in its first four conference games (a 16-12 defeat to South Carolina in Athens and a 35-14 loss at Tennessee) that would ruin any national title hopes at the end of the year.
“We try to set goals that we can control,” he said. “Those are the things we talk about. We talk about winning game one, We talk about trying to win the East, we talk about trying to get in the SEC Championship Game and winning it.
“Our goal is to focus on the moment, not way down the road.. .. What can you do today to get better, to prepare yourself for the opportunity. I told our players, this preseason hype could be a blessing or it could be a curse.”
And the hype has been huge. Georgia, which won its last its final seven games in ’07, will start the season ranked near the top of the major polls. The Bulldogs are the popular choice to win the SEC title, returning 17 starters.
Matt Stafford passed for 2,523 yards and 19 touchdowns. Knowshon Moreno ran for 1,334 yards and 14 scores as a part-time player a year ago. The defense lost just two starters. Of course, all is not perfect for UGA, with a schedule that may be the toughest in the nation — which includes a nonconference trip to Arizona State on Sept. 20.
“We know they’re all going to be tough,” Richt said. “Our state of mind going into every game is that it’s going to be a 60-minute war. If you go into any game thinking anything different and it becomes one, you’re in trouble.. .. When we win games, I feel relieved.”
The one game that could be the most interesting of all is the Florida matchup. Gators coach Urban Meyer made it clear during his appearance in Hoover on Wednesday that he’s still irritated that the entire Bulldogs team stormed the field after their first touchdown in last year’s game. He’s hinted he’s planning to do something in return in this year’s game.
“I don’t think there’s any doubt it intensified the rivalry,” Richt confessed. “But what intensified the rivalry is that we won, OK? I mean, that’s the reality.”
Richt maintained on Thursday that he didn’t plan for his entire team to celebrate, just the 11 on the field. He called Meyer and apologized and promised it wouldn’t happen again. Georgia’s win was just the second in the last 10 years of the series and the third since 1990.
“I’m thinking in my mind, my little pea brain, 11 guys in the game, score a touchdown, 11 guys jump up and down and celebrate until the official throws the flag,” Richt said of the much-publicized celebration.
Before leaving the team hotel on game day, he told the players they could celebrate, thinking it would bring some extra emotion to the team, but something got lost in translation.
When Moreno scored on a 1-yard run, the offense started to celebrate. Then the players on the sideline rushed the field, as well. Gator players looked shocked. Richt said Thursday he was equally surprised, when the whole squad rushed the field.
“It was just a one-time thing,” Georgia defensive tackle Jeff Owens. “It wasn’t planned. Guys saw other guys running out so everybody else ran out. I saw everybody else do it, so I did it. I didn’t want to be the last one when the cameras looked on the bench and I was the only one sitting there.
“It fired us up big time. I think we had like six personal fouls that game. That was the most we had all year. Guys were just Gator chomping and everything. I felt we had our swagger back after that.”
It may have been a turning point for the entire program, finishing off the second half of the year unbeaten and marching into 2008 among the national title favorites. But it could come down to Florida in Jacksonville this season. And the celebration still stings in Gainesville.