ATHENS — On Saturday night at Sanford Stadium, the Georgia Bulldogs will play their most anticipated game against Vanderbilt in recent memory. Maybe ever.
Then again, it’s rare that “anticipated game” and “Vanderbilt” are together in the same sentence. But that is the end result of the events that transpired at immediately after the Bulldogs’ 33-28 win last year in Nashville.
Much has been said and written this week about that brief skirmish between Georgia defensive coordinator Todd Grantham and Vanderbilt coach James Franklin, which saw them go nose-to-nose in a shouting match during what was supposed to be the postgame handshake. Players, coaches and officials had to restrain the two coaches, each of whom was accusing the other’s side of dirty play.
In the end, two Georgia players and one Vanderbilt player received half-game suspensions for their actions during the game. Commodores’ center Logan Stewart — who is no longer with the team — was disciplined for a dangerous chop block of Geathers. Geathers was suspended for the punch he threw in immediate reaction to the illegal hit. And safety Shawn Williams was also assessed a two-quarter suspension for an illegal hit he made during the game. It was Franklin’s comments about Williams immediately after the game that initiated Grantham’s outburst.
The messages from both sides this week generally have been that the incident will have little to no effect on this year’s game, which pits the No. 5-ranked Bulldogs (3-0) against the Commodores (1-2). But that’s not entirely true.
When else have you heard a Georgia player say of an upcoming date with Vanderbilt, “I think this game is one everyone has had circled on their calendar,” as did Georgia senior flanker Tavarres King? Or as the Bulldogs’ mild-mannered quarterback Aaron Murray said of the Commodores: “They’ve definitely got our attention.”
Therein lay the backfire of the Commodores’ newfound swagger. Since Franklin arrived in Nashville from his stint at Maryland as offensive coordinator, he has talked boldly about Vanderbilt no longer being the doormat of the SEC. He has bowed up against Georgia, called out Tennessee coach Derek Dooley and generally has told anyone who would listen that there is a “culture change” afoot and nobody is going to push around the Commodores anymore.
He has mostly delivered on that proclamation. He led the Commodores to their second bowl bid in 29 seasons last year when they were invited to the Liberty Bowl after a 6-6 regular season. And it could have been better.
Including Georgia’s great escape last season, the Commodores’ past six SEC defeats have come by an average margin of 4.6 points. The widest margin was six points to Tennessee in overtime. They lost to No. 9 South Carolina 17-13 to open this season.
“We’ve done some really good things, but we still have a long ways to go,” Franklin said. “If you look at season-ticket sales, how well we’ve been recruiting, how competitive we’ve been on the field the last year-and-a-half week in and week out, that competitive aspect is great. But we’ve got to figure out how to take the next step as a program and be able to win some of these games.”
A lot of people thought the Commodores would take that step this season. They returned 19 starters — 10 on offense and nine on defense — from last year’s team. And the schedule set up well with Vandy getting Eastern Division favorites South Carolina and Georgia in the first month, with Northwestern and Presbyterian mixed in between.
Vandy was indeed in position to beat the Gamecocks in a Thursday night game to christen the season. But South Carolina mounted a fourth-quarter comeback, and the Commodores were victimized late by a bad call. The next week Vandy gave up 17 points in the fourth quarter to lose at Northwestern 23-13.
The Commodores finally got everything right last week in a 58-0 win over Presbyterian. And Georgia coach Mark Richt believes the Commodores are close to getting it done in the SEC.
“It’s not that uncommon to feel like you have to change the culture of the program [when you’re a new coach],” Richt said. “You have to put your stamp on it. You have to be who you are and let your players know who you are and try to motivate and rally people to become special. I think coach Franklin has definitely done that, and you see it week to week. It’s not just one game here and there. They play hard every game. They get after it every game. They take calculated risks every game, and they play to win.”
The Bulldogs found that out firsthand last season, giving up a fake punt and a kickoff return for a touchdown before a blocked punt nearly derailed them in the closing seconds. Between that experience and the postgame fireworks that followed, Georgia’s not likely to take much for granted Saturday night.
“It was a great game, and we know we’re going to have to bring it in all three phases, offense, defense and special teams,” Murray said. “They believe in coach Franklin and what he brings to the table for them and their football program. It’s going to be a game where we have to bring our ‘A’ game.”
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