ATLANTA — Mark Richt took the cautious approach, which is understandable considering the daunting task on the immediate horizon.
“We’re still on the journey,” said the Georgia coach. “I’m not really reflective right now.”
Fair enough, but the occasion of Saturday’s 31-17 victory over Georgia Tech requires a little more pause for admiration before the summit assault. It’s not every year that a 10-win season rises out of the ashes of an 0-2 start and turns eviction notices into contract extensions.
“Going 6-7 (last year), that was the worst feeling I’ve ever been through here at Georgia,” senior center Ben Jones said. “Then turning around and losing our first two (this year), it felt like the world was against you and everybody was standing on our chests. That’s when (coach Richt) said we’ve got a great team and we can go 10-0. We turned around and went 10-0.”
Quibble all you want about the relative strength of Georgia’s schedule, but you can’t look beyond Louisiana State University and Houston and find another team in the nation on a 10-game winning streak. Georgia earned its place in the Southeastern Conference championship game against the supposedly invincible LSU. Whether it can hang with the heavily favored Tigers next Saturday in Atlanta will be the subject of much debate over the next six days.
This Saturday in Atlanta, however, deserves more than just a look ahead to the next thing. Richt’s 10th victory in 11 tries against a hated rival was cause for a little celebration (though he declined on the grounds that his ribs still hurt from his poorly executed belly flop after last week’s division-clinching win), but he kept his emotions bottled up for at least another week.
“Winning 10 in a row is nice,” Richt said. “When we were 0-2, people in the Butts-Mehre building were wanting to say, ‘Hey, we can go 10 in a row.’ You can’t go 10 in a row unless you get one in a row. That kind of became our war cry. Let’s win one in a row, once a week.”
Relentless optimism doesn’t win football games. And with little recent history to show the Bulldogs were capable of such a thing, even a few of the players couldn’t help but be skeptics after high-profile losses to Boise State and South Carolina dug a huge hole.
“He told us we were going to be good, but after those first two losses we weren’t sure we should trust him,” tight end Orson Charles said of Richt. “There’s was a lot of noise out there, but we kind of just shut the door and kept everybody together.”
Maybe the luster of beating teams like Tennessee and Florida and Auburn isn’t as much to brag about this year, but the Bulldogs kept winning all those games anyway. Then they did what they had to do to beat Kentucky last week and win the SEC East for the first time since 2005.
Saturday against Georgia Tech was a chance to put an exclamation point on the turnaround. Paul Johnson’s Yellow Jackets pose a threat to any opponent. The Bulldogs led only 14-10 with just more than a minute left in the first half and a real fight for the Governor’s Cup was brewing.
Instead of being content with a slim lead and going into halftime, Richt put his foot on the gas. He encouraged offensive coordinator Mike Bobo to keep the pressure on with a passing attack the Yellow Jackets seemed incapable of stopping.
Georgia cruised down the field for a late field goal then capitalized on a big Brandon Boykin kickoff return to start the second half to take a quick 24-10 lead. That forced Georgia Tech out of its comfort zone and into a couple of interceptions, and the game was all but over.
“I think that definitely broke their will,” said Georgia quarterback Aaron Murray, who added four more passing touchdowns to four different receivers to his record-smashing season total (32).
Next thing you know, Georgia had its seventh 10-win season in 11 years under Richt and he got a bucket of water dumped across his shoulders. None of the others (2002, ’03 ’04, ’05, ’07 and ’08) required as much heart and resolve as this one.
“He loves every team he coaches and you can’t compare one team to another,” said Murray, “but we’re definitely happy as a team that all that negativity is hopefully gone now and the pressure is off him and he can enjoy just coaching us.”
Bobo has been on Richt’s staff since the beginning and has been in the cross-hairs of disgruntled fans himself, and he considers the accomplishments of this team to be as “impressive” as any before it.
“A lot of people are going to say we haven’t played anybody, but the bottom line is winning,” said Bobo. “We were 0-2 and facing a bunch of criticism as this team did and the negativity surrounding the whole program, to come together as a group and play hard for each other is impressive.”
Bobo remembers walking around the locker room after the South Carolina loss in September trying to boost the spirits of players when two players ended up boosting his.
“Coach, we’re going to be great,” they told him.
Sure enough, they have been. Regardless of what happens next week in the Georgia Dome, where this whole unreal season started on the wrong foot, these Bulldogs did themselves and their coaches proud.