ATHENS, Ga. --- For one day, at least, Georgia didn't feel like a 6-7 football program.
With its 25th and final scholarship offer Wednesday, Carver-Columbus running back Isaiah Crowell put on a Georgia cap and lifted up a Bulldog puppy on live national television.
"Our fans in years past have been kind of bored on signing day. A lot of time things have been wrapped up early with not a lot of drama," head coach Mark Richt said. "There was some drama today -- good drama."
Cheers went up across Bulldog Nation after the nation's consensus No. 1 running back recruit raised the giddiness level to delirium and put the lid on what Richt long ago dubbed project Dream Team.
"This is my dream team; this is our dream team at the University of Georgia," Richt said as he announced a signing class widely regarded as his best in 11 years. "We nailed it pretty good. You never get them all, but we came pretty darn close. I'd say the dream came true today."
The positive signing day news couldn't have come at a better time for Richt. The same could be said for Clemson's Dabo Swinney, who left recruiting experts dumbfounded by landing his own top-10 class (on paper) after the Tigers' own dreary 6-7 campaign. Swinney could break South Carolina's heart on Valentine's Day by stealing stud defensive end Jadeveon Clowney, considered the top overall recruit in the nation.
The euphoria of potential on signing day can ease the criticism after failed seasons and light a fire as rebuilding begins in earnest for 2011.
"I feel revived as a coach," Richt said.
Relieved might be a better word. Richt pushed his chips all in for this recruiting season, locking up 20 in-state recruits from a more fertile-than-usual backyard. He was the one who created the buzz about a potential "dream team," and it could have been labeled a nightmare had Crowell not held that puppy up to the cameras.
"I knew that there was some risk in it, but let's go for the best and go with reckless abandon," Richt said. "I think a lot of the young men bought into it."
Frankly, the Bulldogs could do with a lot less drama over the next year and a lot more winning. When an offseason of turmoil devolved into the worst season in decades, it was Richt's head that was getting called for by irritated boosters.
The volume was amplified after an embarrassing Liberty Bowl loss to Central Florida. Former Bulldog great Fran Tarkenton was particularly harsh on the coaching staff in a radio interview last month, calling the program's demise "god-awful" and "the most disturbing time in Georgia football history."
Tarkenton even predicted dire ramifications on the recruiting front.
"We're going to lose the elite players right now," Tarkenton predicted. "We haven't in the past. We always gotten the elite players. We either didn't choose right or we didn't coach right but for whatever reason we didn't have success with them."
That kind of negative spin certainly made the rounds with the Southeastern and Atlantic Coast conference rivals in the recruiting wars.
Yet somehow, the Bulldogs persevered nonetheless.
"With the trials and tribulations we had, sure some schools saw that we had a chink in the armor and we had to deal with that," said recruiting coordinator Rodney Garner.
"Guys could have bailed out, but they held their faith in Georgia and this coaching staff," Richt said. "It could have been real easy to run and hide midway through the season, but they didn't do that."
While a top-10 recruiting class can rekindle enthusiasm in the off-season, what really matters is wins and losses next fall. Georgia hopes Crowell can be its Marcus Lattimore, injecting instant life into a rushing game the same way South Carolina's stellar freshman did in leading the Gamecocks to the SEC East crown. The Bulldogs also foresee immediate contributions from blue-chip recruits such as tight end Jay Rome, linebacker Ray Crew and athlete Malcolm Mitchell among others.
But potential needs to be transformed into reality. For every A.J. Green and Matthew Stafford who deliver the goods, there are more Caleb Kings and C.J. Byrds who fall somewhat shy of all the advance hype.
"This class has got a little swag about it," Richt said. "But I think they know they've got to earn it."
Whether this Georgia class turns into a real dream team or just another mirage is to be determined.