Athens — On the dark night Georgia lost to South Carolina to slide to 0-2, the Bulldogs’ offensive coordinator went looking for spirits to lift. To his surprise, Mike Bobo found that spirits were unbowed.
“I’d tell them, ‘If we hang together and keep working, we’ve got a chance to be very good,’” Bobo said Saturday. “And every one of them said, ‘Coach, we’ve got a chance to be great.’”
As he spoke, Bobo sat in a chair in a locker room, the floor of which had been covered in plastic and doused with water. A nondescript game had ended with the Georgia Bulldogs champions of the SEC East for the first time since the distant year 2005.
“We grabbed water bottles and threw them around the room,” said wide receiver Marlon Brown, scorer of Georgia’s only touchdown this day, and even the 51-year-old head coach got in the soggy swing of things. Seeking to slide across the wet surface, Mark Richt made it only halfway.
“I thought it was going to be fun,” Richt said of his maneuver. “I can’t say it was fun.”
For Richt, the day’s overriding emotion seemed more relief than exultation. He arrived from Florida State in 2001, won the SEC in 2002 and took his Bulldogs to the SEC championship game three times in four years. Then, having set the bar high, Richt went five years without a return to the title game, and when this season began there was no assurance this coach would have this job come 2012. And then the 2011 Bulldogs started 0-2.
“When we lost to South Carolina [the second of the two losses], a lot of things go through your mind as a coach,” Richt said. “Sometimes you’ve got to make something up — you don’t want to lose your team. But [that night] I could stand there with a straight face; it was very easy to believe in them. And I said, ‘If we don’t spit the bit … if we keep grinding, we can do it.’ ”
On Saturday, his Bulldogs finished this latest drill. Yes, they were aided by a schedule that eased after the back-to-back whammy of Boise State and South Carolina, but it isn’t as if Georgia backed into anything. It has won nine consecutive games, beating Tennessee and Florida and Auburn en route, and it finished 7-1 in SEC play. (Let’s note that South Carolina took the East with a 5-3 record last season.)
Richt: “It’s hard to win nine in a row. We’ve done something special.”
The details of a forgettable Victory No. 9 — Georgia trailed Kentucky, which had lost by 30 points to Vanderbilt last week, after 29 minutes and led only 12-10 after three quarters — will soon be forgotten. The ramifications will linger long. Said cornerback Brandon Boykin: “I’ll definitely remember this game for clinching a championship on Senior Day. Everyone had so much riding on this game.”
Richt again: “I told the players this [East title] was the most meaningful to me. I don’t know if that’s true or not, but it felt like it today.”
Here he laughed, but there was no comedic content in the job Richt and his staff did to keep this team buoyant after a start that might have sunk another bunch. “It wasn’t just 0-2,” Richt said, “but 0-2 coming off 6-7 [of last season] and with everything swirling around. We did a really good job handling all the noise.”
Said linebacker Jarvis Jones, the sudden star of a ravenous defense that held Kentucky to 13 yards and one first down after halftime: “It’s not how you drive; it’s how you arrive. We kept fighting, and look at us now.”
Said cornerback Branden Smith: “All [the 0-2 start] did was bring us together as one family.”
Said Brown: “We kept grinding.”
Even after 11 games and nine victories, it’s hard to know just how good Georgia is. The Auburn victory was the only time the Bulldogs thrashed an SEC opponent, and for long stretches Saturday they flailed against the worst Kentucky team of the new millennium. But they won. Since the night of Sept. 10, they’ve done nothing except win.
Said Richt: “I don’t know if we’re a great team, but we’re SEC East champs.”
In the grand scheme, that’s all that matters. Georgia headed back to the big game in the big city, back where it once belonged. Full credit to this team and this coach for taking it there.
By Mark Bradley