Originally created 12/31/06

Georgia looks to cap year with win



ATLANTA - Georgia finished the season in December and out of the top 10 for the first time in five years Saturday night, neither of which are conditions the Bulldogs would have aimed for four months ago.

But they also had a chance to finish in style, because they were finishing in Atlanta.

Coming here has come to mean a lot to the program from just up the road.

The Bulldogs have won a couple of Southeastern Conference titles in Atlanta the past few years. They played in the Sugar Bowl here last year.

They have taken the short ride to create long-lasting memories close to home.

Saturday's Chick-fil-A Bowl was a chance for another.

This wasn't the game or the night Georgia was seeking at the start of the season. A team that has made a place for itself among college football's elite does not shoot for a season-ending game outside of the BCS, does not expect a step down even in a season when personnel changes make a step back likely.

Still, getting to Atlanta and the last days of December was an accomplishment after where they were in October.

From a 5-0 start that didn't really fool anybody into believing this was a great team to a 1-4 run that similarly exaggerated their deficiencies this was a season that was headed down. Rallying to save themselves a spot in at the Chick-fil-A table to end on an upswing.

Of course, what happened here Saturday was going to mean a lot.

A win would have completed a 9-4 season and kept Georgia among the nation's most successful programs during Mark Richt's tenure. It also would have pointed the team toward 2007 with even more momentum than they have gained in the past month, maybe even catching the attention of a few recruits.

A loss would have stolen some of the steam built by a strong finish to the regular season and might have made it a little more of a challenge to carry the effect of wins over Auburn and Georgia Tech into the winter, into the summer and into next season.

But just getting to such a quality bowl in a season that was once swirling toward ruin was the first step to keeping the program moving forward.

It will take more, no matter how Saturday went.

Matthew Stafford was going to have to continue growing into the quarterback position that has started to look more and more natural to him as this year wore on.

The running game will have to rebound from a season in which none of Georgia's talented backs really matched their potential and the receivers will simply have to start catching the ball more often.

And, more than anything, the defense and special teams will have to get back to being able to win games on their own, even if they aren't forced to.

That has been the real strength during Georgia's run of success under Richt. And even though they came into Saturday ranked ninth in the country, the Bulldogs' defense was not the same this year as it has been in the past.

Richt and his staff have a whole off-season to find those improvements.

Saturday, they had a chance to finish the season in style in Atlanta. That meant they had a time and place that made it seem they didn't really have that far to go to reach where they've been for the past five years.