Originally created 12/31/06

Dogs' season plays out in bowl victory



ATLANTA - It was the season in microcosm.

The cautiously optimistic start.

The demoralizing middle breakdown.

The completely justified write off.

The unanticipated redemption.

Georgia presented its 2006 season passion play in four parts at the bowl game formerly (and forever in our hearts) known as the Peach on Saturday night.

With a captivating and inspiring 31-24 victory over No. 14 Virginia Tech at the Georgia Dome, the Bulldogs rewrote the legacy of their 2006 season. It went from bad to better to pretty darn good in a span of three games over six weeks.

Whodda thunk that in a season that included defeats to Vanderbilt and Kentucky for the first time in 33 years? Even Georgia coach Mark Richt admitted that by mid Movember "it looked like all hope was lost."

"I think what happened with us midseason, losing four out of five games, having a lot of people doubt us and the nation forget about us, for us to finish with two great victories over ranked teams, that was huge for us," Richt said before the bowl game. "We gained a lot of relief in those two victories and maybe a little respect, but to be able to win this game will give us a lot of respect."

Especially the way the Bulldogs won it Saturday night. Just like the days after the Kentucky loss, all hope appeared lost when Georgia fell behind 21-3 at halftime to the nation's top-ranked total, scoring and passing defense. The Hokies were already celebrating what seemed a shoo-in for the first back-to-back bowl victories in the program's history.

Let's just say a completely different column was written and poised to be sent by the time Brandon Coutu kicked a 51-yard field goal that seemed like a quaint sidebar to an inevitable defeat.

But it all changed when a walk-on kicker named Brian Mimbs recovered his own on-side kick. The energy in the Georgia Dome shifted just like it did for the Bulldogs after a reinvigorating victory at Auburn. Next thing you know the offense is pulling off "rooskie" plays and the defense is going gonzo all over Virginia Tech quarterback Sean Glennon.

Before you could say "Mike Bobo for President," the Bulldogs were piling on the offensive and defensive hurt to the Hokies.

Matthew Stafford threw a touchdown to Martrez Milner and then Kregg Lumpkin and Brannan Southerland rushed for touchdowns to alter the outcome of the bowl game and the perception of the season.

Georgia going 9-4 isn't cause for parades down Broad Street in Athens, but it was a far cry better than anyone could have imagined six weeks ago. You can argue it was better than the 10-2 mark a much better 2004 team posted with an effort some tried to portray as "great." Sometimes you have to grade a football season on a curve, and this one definitely curved upward.

All 8-5 and 9-4 seasons are not alike. South Carolina's 8-5 was reason to celebrate and believe in a future under Steve Spurrier that's even brighter. Clemson's was a dismal catastrophe and makes you wonder if Tommy Bowden can ever do any better.

Georgia's 9-4 is arguably more palatable than Georgia Tech's potential 10-4/probable 9-5 "career" campaign. It wasn't as good as Bulldogs fans might have expected in September but it was much better than it could have been.

Victories over ranked rivals Auburn and Georgia Tech and a well-regarded program like Virginia Tech are even more satisfying in times of hardship.

Recovering from this season should prove even easier than recovering from a large deficit to a team like Virginia Tech. There's much more to be positive than negative about as the signing date on another stellar recruiting class approaches.

It starts with Stafford, the bowl game's offensive MVP. The true freshman took his lumps this year behind a bad offensive line and an even worse receiving corps. But if you give the kid a little more time and someone who can catch the ball, his potential is through the roof of the Georgia Dome.

And the changing of the offensive coaching guard might be the biggest boost Stafford needs to reach that potential. With Neil Callaway gone to Alabama-Birmingham and Bobo taking over the play-calling duties that Richt handled a bit clumsily at times, the Bulldogs have a chance to blossom. Hopefully somebody will recognize that making a talented tailback like Lumpkin a 20-carry-a-game, 1,000-yard back will do more to help the young quarterback than the ineffective platoon system of the past few years.

And with a more seasoned secondary, the defense has the potential to reestablish itself in the form of its predecessors.

In short, its easier to be bullish on the Bulldogs even after a season most boosters might describe as sub-par. Sometimes a team needs to take a step back to be able to move forward.

And for all its downs and ups, this Georgia season turned out to be a peach.

Reach Scott Michaux at (706) 823-3219 or scott.michaux@augustachronicle.com.