Georgia and Florida will wage their annual border war down Saturday by the St. John's River in Jacksonville. If Georgia (4-4, 3-3 SEC) wins the game, formerly known as the World's Largest Outdoor Cocktail Party, and South Carolina (5-2, 3-2 SEC) stumbles a couple of times in November (when they play Arkansas and Florida), the Bulldogs will play for the SEC championship on Dec. 4 in Atlanta.
Just the fact that I can even write that sentence boggles the mind.
|It's no coincidence that Georgia started winning when A.J. Green returned. (US Presswire)|
The Bulldogs had lost four consecutive games to South Carolina, Arkansas, Mississippi State, and Colorado. They were 1-4 overall (the only win being against woeful Louisiana-Lafayette) and 0-3 in the SEC.
Mark Richt, the dean of SEC coaches who entered 2010 with 90 wins in nine years and two SEC championships, was being skewered on talk radio and in print throughout the state. The game had passed him by, they said. His teams were no longer disciplined, they howled. Yes, Georgia had more than its fair share of guys who landed on the Clarke County police blotter, but Richt was starting to take a pretty hard line on that in an effort to clean it up.
Ultimately, Richt's critics said, he wasn't (chose one): A) mean enough; B) tough enough; or C) savvy enough to compete with the likes of Nick Saban at Alabama or Urban Meyer at Florida. Georgia needed a new coach, went the narrative. They needed a rock star to look Saban and Meyer in the eye and not blink and not back down, especially on the recruiting trail. The lists of potential replacements were being compiled from Blairsville to Valdosta on a daily basis.
But Richt never panicked. He believed in his players. He believed in his coaches. But most of all, he believed in himself. On a very fundamental level he knew what needed to be done.
He changed how his team practiced. On Tuesdays, Georgia used to put on the pads and go full speed with the ones versus the ones (first-team offense versus first-team defense). Georgia has been hammered with lots of injuries the past two seasons, so Richt avoided rough practices to try to keep his team fresh. He thought it was the right thing to do so that his best players could get on the field in the toughest conference in the land.
Ultimately Richt had to concede that not hitting during the week kept his team from being sharp on Saturday. Vince Dooley had done it for 25 years. They even had a name for it, "Bloody Tuesday." Sometimes the old ways are still the best ways.
"We decided to ramp up the way we practice and focus our preparation on getting better," Richt said. "We thought it would be better to rely on that rather than on emotion."
After scrimmaging for the first time during the week, Georgia went out and dominated Tennessee in Athens 41-14 on Oct. 9. The following week, the Bulldogs were very sharp in destroying Vanderbilt 43-0. Last Saturday, Bulldog Nation was worried about going to Kentucky, which had just knocked off South Carolina the week before. Georgia jumped out to a 28-3 lead in Lexington and won 44-31.
"We did a good job of staying together through the adversity," Richt said. "We did a very good job of staying unified on what we could do. For a while there we knew that all we had was each other."
Richt has also tightened up some things off the field. Running back Caleb King was leading the team in rushing when he failed to show up in court to handle a speeding ticket. King was picked up by the authorities. Normally, an infraction like that would draw a slap on the wrist or running the stadium steps at dawn. King was suspended for two games. Richt made it clear that, moving forward, he was not going to be very tolerant when it came to knucklehead stuff.
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But Georgia's three-game run isn't just about practice tempo and off-the-field behavior. Some good stuff finally started happening on the field, like the return of A.J. Green, who may be the best receiver in college football. Green sat out the first four games of the season after he sold a jersey for $1,000 to someone the NCAA determined had connections with an agent.
He returned for the Oct. 2 game at Colorado and was brilliant, making what was arguably the best catch in college football this year. Green finished with seven catches for 119 yards and two touchdowns. Down 29-27, Georgia had a chance to win when it drove to the Colorado 37-yard line in the closing moments. But Blair Walsh, one of the best kickers in the country, did not get a chance to kick a winning field goal because of a fumble on a basic running play.
But in the last three games against Tennessee, Vanderbilt and Kentucky, Georgia has scored 128 points. It is not a coincidence that Georgia's offensive outburst arrived when Green returned to the team.
"Having A.J. back opens up the middle of the field," said Richt. "The safeties have to worry about getting beat deep and suddenly there is more room for our backs, and so we've run the ball better."
Running back Washaun Ealey rushed for 157 yards and five touchdowns (a Georgia record) last week against Kentucky.
It also helps that Aaron Murray, the redshirt freshman quarterback from Tampa, is getting better with each game. Folks, this kid is going to be a star.
"I think we brought him along a little slowly, but that was the right thing to do," said Richt. "Now we have taken the training wheels off and we can ask him to do just about anything. He is going to be a special player for us."
Against Tennessee, Murray threw for 266 yards, ran for two touchdowns and threw for two more. Against Vanderbilt he completed 15 of 24 passes for 287 yards and two touchdowns. Because Georgia was running the ball so well against Kentucky, Murray only had to throw 12 passes.
And now, after some real growing pains, the Georgia defense is starting to understand the nuances of the 3-4 alignment installed last spring by new coordinator Todd Grantham. Early in the year there was way too much thinking going on. Guys were out of position and very, very tentative. Now Georgia is just playing and has forced nine turnovers in the past three games. If you haven't seen defensive end Justin Houston play, watch him against Florida. This guy is really, really good.
Richt has also decided to have a little more fun. He told his players three games ago that every week they won the turnover battle, which was a real problem last year and early this season, he would allow them to grow facial hair. Since Richt's decree, Georgia has a turnover margin of 9-to-1. And the one Georgia turnover was a recovered onsides kick late by Kentucky. As a result, there are a lot of Hairy Dawgs in Athens.
So Georgia enters the game with Florida, which has beaten the Bulldogs in 17 of the last 20 meetings, in an unfamiliar role as the team that is feeling good about itself. Florida, conversely, has had a week off and is still trying to figure out why life after Tim Tebow has been so difficult. Florida has lost three straight regular season games for the first time since 1988.
"I'm sure they are doing some soul searching, trying to find some answers like we have," said Richt.
It appears that Richt and the Bulldogs have finally found some of those answers, just in time for the Cocktail Party on Saturday.
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