HOOVER, Ala. – Notwithstanding the Lazarus-like rise we’ve witnessed over the past two years, Georgia has been unable to punctuate a season with an SEC championship since 2005. Two years ago, the Bulldogs lost the conference title game to LSU. Last year, they lost to Alabama. Both opponents went on to the national championship game.
Had this been a beauty contest, tight end Arthur Lynch mused, “The runner-up in the Miss America pageant is still pretty good looking. But we’d rather not finish second. It’s still losing.”
It’s significant, however, that Georgia isn’t doing a lot of losing anymore. In pageant-speak, they’re not being dropped after the talent portion of the show and shipped to Memphis for the Liberty Bowl (only to score six points against Central Florida)
In the last two seasons, the Bulldogs go 22-6. That means they’ve lost fewer games than in 2010 (6-7). They also went 14-2 in the SEC after going 7-9 in the previous two.
Welcome back to relevancy.
“I think internally we always had faith,” coach Mark Richt said Thursday, prior to his main news conference at SEC media days. “We knew our only chance for success was to believe in each other, trust each other. It was healthy for us to go through that. It wasn’t fun, but it was healthy. And externally, I think our fans are excited. Even when we were going through the tough times, our fans were getting tough and angry, but most of them were just concerned about the team. They just wanted to support a team that would reach its full potential. So I didn’t get bent out of shape.”
There will be no shortage of angst going into next season. Three of the first four opponents (Clemson, South Carolina, LSU) will be ranked. Most of last year’s starting defense now plays in the NFL. But the Dogs should be viewed differently now, particularly the holdovers from the core group that has seen this rebirth. Georgia affirmed that by falling one play/five yards short of upsetting Alabama for the SEC title last year (and, given what Alabama then did to Notre Dame, likely came that close to Richt’s first national title).
But this could be the year Georgia finally breaks through.
Lynch, referencing the 32-28 loss to Alabama in the Georgia Dome, said, “I think we proved to ourselves that we belong in the top five in the country, if not the top two. We were a play away. It sounds theatrical and dramatic, but that’s what it was. If we get five more yards, we’re a national championship team. That’s what we’ve been doing the last six, seven months is preparing for that last play that will get us over the edge.”
The narrow loss to Alabama doesn’t haunt this Georgia team as much at it drives it. Lynch said quarterback Aaron Murray, one of his house-mates, “wanted to go watch film that night. We were, like, ‘Dude, stay in the house. Relax.’ I’m sure he wanted to dissect every play.”
Richt again: “We didn’t want a moral victory. But we wanted to be respected, and I think our players earned respect on that day.”
There are a few significant reasons why, despite the difficult start to the schedule, this could be a special season for the Dogs. One is Murray, who opted against turning pro and is the team’s unquestioned leader. He ran the offseason voluntary workouts and even joked with Richt on the flight to Birmingham that he was happy to be turning over coaching duties to Richt now.
Another obvious strength is the running game, led by sophomores Todd Gurley and Keith Marshall. The potential of having such an effective ball-control offense, along with an ability to run play-action as a result of the running game, should help minimize the damage of several new starters on defense.
Finally, there’s this: It has been a relatively quiet summer.
One player (tight end Ty Flournoy-Smith) has been kicked off the team. Potentially two others, safety Josh Harvey-Clemons and kicker Marshall Morgan, will be suspended for the opener at Clemson for marijuana and alcohol offenses, respectively. That’s it. The usual blur of arrests, failed drug tests, suspensions and abrupt departures that have plagued this program for so many summers hasn’t been evident in 2013.
Richt smiled. “How about that?”
“I think it has a lot to do with that last game,” Lynch said. “It motivated us to do right, to train the way we have to train, behave the way we have to behave. Every team has a few things go not the way you want them to go. But overall we’ve stayed focused. I think it will show up on the field.”
Said Murray, “We’ve grown a lot since going 6-7 three years ago. We’re back on the map. I think now teams are looking at us differently, saying, ‘We have to play Georgia.’”
It could be time for them to take the next step.