Every win pushes the agony a little further back into history. Every significant moment – the comeback against Florida, the domination of Auburn – quiets the anger just a little bit more.
Georgia has positioned itself to clinch the SEC East on Saturday against Kentucky in Athens. But of greater significance actually is what the program may be starting to show about the future.
The Bulldogs likely have four games remaining: Kentucky, Georgia Tech, the SEC championship and a bowl game. How they perform in those four will say a lot about where things are headed and to what extent the fan base can again become unified, as it was from Mark Richt’s arrival through 2007 – and until the “blackout” game against Alabama in 2008.
If the Dogs defeat Kentucky, it will secure a division title unlike any other under Richt. He won a conference championship in only his second season in 2002. He won the East again in 2003 (losing the SEC title game to LSU) and 2005 (this time beating LSU). But over the past few years, the good feelings had been eroding, losses had been increasing, doubt had been growing.
When Steve Spurrier punctuated his postgame comments following South Carolina’s win over Florida last week with, “We’ll see what Georgia does when they know they have to win,” it wasn’t the nonsensical ramblings from the SEC’s most notorious tweaker. Fact is, Spurrier had a point. The Bulldogs had something to prove.
The danger signs were far more widespread than Georgia coming off its first losing season under Richt (6-7). After a 4-0 start in 2008, the Bulldogs were drilled at home by Alabama — the black jerseys were quickly put back into a box –and went only 20-17 in their next 37 games (0-2 to start this year) and 12-12 in the SEC.
Through this season’s second-week loss at South Carolina, Georgia was 5-10 in its past 15 SEC games. It had lost not only to recent conference powers Alabama and Florida, but LSU, Tennessee, Kentucky, Arkansas, Mississippi State, Auburn and South Carolina (twice).
The resulting perception: Georgia hadn’t only slipped on the national landscape – losing 10 of 12 to ranked teams — but also was falling dangerously behind the curve in the SEC.
That’s not even addressing losing to Colorado and Central Florida.
Is that all buried now? Maybe. It’s easy for skeptics to point out the East is weak, favored South Carolina imploded and the 2011 schedule lacked the SEC’s three toughest teams: LSU, Alabama and Arkansas. (Georgia plays at Alabama next season.) But an eight-game winning streak is remarkable under any circumstances, let alone in a season that began with losses to Boise State and South Carolina.
The Dogs found themselves trailing 17-3 in the second quarter to Florida. They came back to win 24-20.
They had struggled against ranked teams before last week, even modestly ranked ones like Auburn (No. 24 by AP). But they left no doubt, winning 45-7.
They are showing a toughness and resilience that has been missing in Athens.
Richt was pleasantly surprised this week when a scuffle broke out at practice Tuesday. “We had a very spirited practice,” he said. “We actually had to pull a couple of guys off each other.”
When is the last time you sensed that kind of hunger?
Aaron Murray is coming off his most impressive game of the season. The defense under Todd Grantham seems to get better each week and has risen to No. 4 in the nation. The Bulldogs are second only to LSU in the SEC (tied for eighth nationally) with a plus-9 turnover differential.
I think some folks have even pulled darts out of Mike Bobo’s picture.
When the season opened, Georgia looked disturbingly unprepared against Boise State. But Richt has succeeded in putting out fires, from the 0-2 start to the failed drug tests of three running backs to the postgame mess at Vanderbilt. He has dealt with the immaturity issues of Isaiah Crowell.
Players are responding to him. That’s more than half the battle in coaching.
All are positive signs for the future. This is Georgia’s chance to affirm this hasn’t been an aberration. With up to four remaining games, this is the Dogs’ chance to put all that preceded this winning streak far into the past.
By Jeff Schultz