COLUMBIA, Mo. – There probably remains some disagreement as to exactly what Georgia’s post-0-2 run last season means for the immediate future of the program and its stature in the SEC. But we’re about to find out.
The Bulldogs played in the SEC Championship game in three of Mark Richt’s first five seasons in Athens. They failed to reach the game in any of the next five. Then came last season’s flop out of the gate, including a second consecutive conference-opening loss to South Carolina. The Bulldogs played catch-up for the rest of the season, won 10 straight and ultimately made it back to the Georgia Dome (albeit, losing to LSU).
“We don’t want to have to look at somebody else’s schedule again,” Georgia wide receiver Tavarres King said. “It wasn’t fun at all last year, having to worry about what South Carolina was doing. I want to relax after a game. I don’t want to have to sit up, biting my fingernails, watching somebody else play.”
For the first time in 21 seasons, Georgia begins SEC play against a team other than South Carolina. (They’re still going to Columbia — but northwest to Missouri, not east, past Augusta.)
There’s probably not a better team for Georgia to open against, if the objective is to prove self-worth in the SEC East. Missouri isn’t the best team in the conference. It’s unranked. But it’s a solid program juiced for its conference debut and playing at home. The Tigers carry in some of that inferior-little-brother, we’ll-show-you-the-Big-12-isn’t-some-Fisher-Price-conference attitude. So it’s not likely to be easy.
That said, the Dogs either win the game and affirm they’re SEC contenders again, or they lose and there’s reason to wonder about a low ceiling again.
“We don’t want to start out behind,” Richt said. “I don’t think anyone wants to be sitting there after the first game in league play relying on people to help us get to the SEC Championship game. It’s huge.”
Richt’s responsibilities might have been lightened this week. There was no need for him to give players a pep talk after Missouri’s Sheldon Richardson took a verbal jab at the Dogs for playing what he termed “old man football” (whatever that is).
Note to SEC newbies Missouri and Texas A&M: It takes roughly three seconds for a spark to explode into a raging inferno in this conference.
Georgia players tend to be well-schooled by Richt in this area. They have generally refrained from firing back at Richardson. King might’ve come the closest when he said, “We’re just going to maintain our thoughts about this game. We’re not going to get into a peeing contest. It’s not about talking. It’s about winning.”
So he doesn’t trash talk?
“Well, yeah, I talk,” he said earlier in the week. “Everybody does. But I talk on the field. I don’t see the satisfaction you get out of talking trash today.”
Senior Richard Samuel said, “I don’t know if it’s extra motivation, but it gives you something to think about it. I mean, I don’t even know where that stems from. How many yards did [Aaron] Murray throw for last year? We all heard about the comment and we were just like, ‘Wow. Really?”
When asked about the “old man offense” reference, Richt at first played dumb (”What was said?”), then he joked, “I’ll say this: Being over 50, I’m getting AARP stuff in the mail. So I look at it as a compliment. I’m like, ‘Yeah, they have a lot of respect for us.’ That’s what I thought.”
In reality, one soundbite isn’t going to swing this game, or this season. But Georgia understands that how things start in the SEC generally is a good indication how they will end.
The Dogs are 7-4 in openers under Richt (all against South Carolina). Only once among those four losses did they go on to play for the conference title. That was last season. It took until the final SEC game against Kentucky — a win by the margin of 19-10 — to clinch the East.
They can’t assume they would be able to climb out of a hole again.
By Jeff Schultz
Some selections from the jukebox