ATHENS — Georgia coach Mark Richt and several players met with a large media contingent that came to Butts-Mehre Heritage Hall on Tuesday to find out the No. 3 Bulldogs’ thoughts as they get ready to play No. 2 Alabama in the SEC Championship game on Saturday. The winner will advance to play Notre Dame in the Discover BCS National Championship on Jan. 7 in Miami.
The main topics of discussion were the remarkable similarities between the two teams, why the Bulldogs believe they’ll play better in this year’s game than they did last year and what they think it will take to beat an Alabama team that everybody seems to believe will win easily.
Here are some of Tuesday’s comments . . .
GEORGIA COACH MARK RICHT
Opening statement . . .
“We have Alabama this week, one of the best teams in the country, obviously. The last five years they’ve won 59 games. That’s the most in the history of the SEC, and the last four years they’ve won 48 games. That’s just one off of the NCAA mark in that period of time. If they beat us they would tie it, and if they win the next game they would break the national record. They’re just at a time where they’re dominating college football really. So we have a lot of respect for them obviously. Coach (Nick) Saban has done a wonderful job there, no doubt.”
View of Alabama’s team . . .
“They’re just a very complete football team, a very solid football team, a team that rarely loses. We know we have our work cut out for us. Our guys are excited about the opportunity to compete with them, and we’re working hard as a staff, getting our plan together. Yesterday was the only practice we had so far, but they came out with good energy and Coach (Joe) Tereshinski said they got in a good lift, so today will be a big day to put the pads on and do the physical part of the preparation we have to get done.”
On whether he senses a more confident team than last year’s team entering the SEC Championship . . .
“I think last year after 6-7 the year before and 0-2 to start, we were just fighting for our lives. We had won 10 in a row, and we were able to win the Eastern Division after going down that opening game. It was a cause for celebration. This year we definitely celebrated those things. They are very important to us. Winning the East is a big deal, and beating Georgia Tech is always a big deal to us, so we celebrated those things. I think they’re hungry for some more, and we just want to have a better performance than we had a year ago in Atlanta. I think the celebration wasn’t quite as hard as it was a year ago.”
On whether he can take anything away from Texas A&M’s game against Alabama . . .
“I don’t know if it was the tempo they had problems with as much as Johnny Manziel. He creates problems for everybody because he can scramble like he can. If you come at him too hard you create these seams and he takes off. You just can’t account for that. If you decide to contain him in the pocket, then you aren’t rushing quite as hard, so he’s standing there holding the ball a while. I think it changes the mindset of defenses as to how they’re used to playing the game. I think that was probably more problematic. Not to say the tempo wasn’t an issue as well, but if you had to say the one factor I’d say it would be Johnny Manziel.”
On Georgia’s offensive pace . . .
“We can go very fast, we can go relatively fast, or we can just be at the line of scrimmage a long time. We really have about three different tempos we try to use. So we’re not like the Oregons of the world where every single play we’re going at breakneck speed, but we can go at a pretty good pace. I think one of the rules that changed was the 40-second clock rather than the old 25-second clock. I think that has sped up the operation of the officials in our league. I think they were very methodical before with the 25-second clock where that ball wasn’t going to get set until about 13 seconds after the play was over. Now to me, they’re more apt to set the ball and let you play if you don’t substitute. If you don’t substitute our officials will let you play about as fast as you want to play.”
On Georgia’s football program not winning national championship since 1980 . . .
“When I first came to Georgia I was a first-year head coach and I was just hoping to survive. I was hoping to do a good job, and I felt like the Lord was leading me to this opportunity, and my wife and I took it in faith. We just started trying to do things that in a way we hoped would be able to sustain itself over time. I felt like Georgia had all the resources, the fan base, the passion, the administration, facilities, the talent base in the state of Georgia. I thought it had all the ingredients to be one of the best – if not the best -teams in the country. I really didn’t know a lot of history. I knew about the Herschel Walker era, the Vince Dooley era and the national championship of 1980. I was surprised to hear it had been 20 years since Georgia had won the Southeastern Conference, but I found that out after I got here. My goal really has been to try to on a daily basis do the best job I can do. We have a lot of people excited about the possibilities of what’s happening right now, but that’s something that I can’t really focus on right now. It’s fun for the fans, but right now I have to keep my vision on the things I can control.”
On past games against Nick Saban . . .
“I guess we’ve played five times in the past – three at LSU and two at Alabama (3-2 record). I think they’ve changed a little bit. Back in the LSU days when we were playing them, I think defensively they were more apt to blitz and pressure people, play press coverage and maybe not as much help on the back end. Now they tend to line up a little more often in more of a two shell defensive look, and they’ll play coverage a little more. They put the pressure on by having four beasts up front that they don’t really need to blitz with. I think they are a little bit more apt to play coverage than they did in the past. I think in the past they’d try to bring one more than you could block and try to knock the quarterback out and tell their DBs to lock up and take care of business. I think they’ve changed just a little bit in that way. Offensively, I think they’ve always been very serious about running the football, protecting the ball and playing great special teams, defense, running the ball physically and wearing people down. I don’t think that’s changed.”
On how rewarding this season has been . . .
“When we win I’m thankful. I don’t get too carried away with ‘my this or my that.’ I do enjoy coaching and enjoy competing and winning as much as anybody, but I do enjoy watching the players celebrate victories and the coaching staff do the job they’re doing. Quite frankly our coaches are doing a great job. This staff has just been phenomenal. I’m trying to manage the big picture, and there are certain things that a head coach has to do, but as far as the X’s and O’s, I still get involved to a certain degree offensively. I’ll have some thoughts about defense or special teams, but the reality is this coaching staff is really taking care of business right now, and I’m really pleased to see that for them, too.
On the playoff feel to Saturday’s game . . .
“It’s different. I guess technically we don’t know for certain, but everybody’s pretty much saying that the winner is going to go play for the national championship, so that certainly adds something to it. I said it the other day that the Southeastern Conference Championship to me stands alone as something that’s really, really special. Just look at our game, the ticket sales, and the people trying to get tickets. I was listening to the radio on the way in and somebody said that the cost of these tickets rival any BCS National Championship game. There’s something about our league that’s special. If you win the Southeastern Conference, you’ve really done something special, and if you win the East, you’ve done something special in my opinion. I think our fans really understand that and embrace that. When I came from Florida State to Georgia, that’s one of the things that I learned. Every victory is precious in this league, and the style points don’t really matter all that much. Just win. Whereas before when I was at Florida State, we were wanting to win, but we wanted to win with a certain flair or a certain style. At Georgia I realized really fast that it doesn’t matter if you have style points or not. Just win. This league is so competitive on all levels, so it’s just fun to be a part of.”
On the importance of the SEC Championship game . . .
“I don’t think the championship game has changed much since I’ve been here. I think it’s a huge game. It’s a monster game. It’s a sellout, and people are always fighting to get tickets. It’s a game that I think everybody across the country wants to watch. Of course, this game in particular because everybody’s sitting there saying that the winner is going to go play for the national championship. Everybody already knows Notre Dame is in. I think there will be a different focus maybe nationally even more so than what we normally get, but what we normally get is pretty good. I’m sure that maybe there will be a little bit more interest in this one than in some of the ones in the past. The last six or seven years, the winner (of this game) has gone on to play for the national championship, so it’s not all that new.”
On comparisons of this team with other BCS contenders
“I think we’re probably more similar to the 2002 team. I felt like as the season went on that year, we just got better and better. I thought we slowly improved as we went, and we weren’t very apt to shoot ourselves in the foot. We seemed to be the kind of team that we were going to make somebody beat us. I don’t know what’s going to happen Saturday, but that’s kind of the direction we’ve gone.”
On the future four-team playoff format . . .
“I’m not sure of the format. I would say that if there is a four-team playoff and each league can only have one team in it, I don’t think I would like that as much as the format now. But if you’re allowed to have at least two teams in it, I think it would be good.”
On Aaron Murray not talking this week . . .
“He really loves to submerge himself into the film study of every game, and this one he just wants to focus on nothing but Alabama. He doesn’t want to have any other distraction, so that’s okay with me.”
On defensive players speaking their minds . . .
“They’re all young and excited, and they say what they want to say sometimes. I don’t think it’s going to matter much what everybody says before the game. I think it’s going to matter when we kick it off, so I’m not too worried about that.”
On special teams play this season…
“My goal this year was for us to be solid on our special teams. My goal wasn’t to try to lead the nation in any one category. I wanted to make sure that every time we force them to punt, I want to make sure we have the ball. If someone makes a fair catch, that’s okay with me. At the end of the kickoff, I want to make sure we have the ball in our hand. Let’s have a good, solid return, secure the football, and do well. Of course when you punt, you have to make sure you protect. My goal is just to kick that sucker high and have the least amount of big plays in that situation. We did have the one returned for a touchdown, but other than that, we’ve given up very few return yards. Now is our net punt quite as high as Alabama’s, which is almost 44 (yards)? No, but even if it’s 38 or 39 yards and it’s got good hang time and we fair catch it, we can then move the ball for four downs and get a good play out of it. My goal was for a really solid kicking unit this year, and I think we are solid. In the kickoff return, Malcolm (Mitchell) returns it back to the 50. It’s not like we’re not trying to get a touchdown. We had Todd Gurley return one for a touchdown, and we blocked a couple punts this year. We’ve done some good things in there, but the big thing is to make sure that they don’t become a huge momentum play for the other team.”
Split end Rhett McGowan
On preparing for another big game . . .
“You can always learn from something like [the loss to South Carolina]. You want to forget the bad things, but you also want to learn from it and I think we have. That will benefit us going into another big game like this one. To be on a big stage again, like we were at South Carolina – I think maybe we were a bit over-hyped for that game. But it also gave us experience that will help us.”
On Georgia’s defense . . .
“You don’t want to get them mad. They’re physical guys. They love contact and they’re not going to shy away from it. They love the game of football. When their blood gets hot it makes them better.”
On the receivers’ play . . .
“The injuries we had earlier in the year helped us in that it gave some other guys opportunities to get out on the field. We all got more experience than we had already had, which will help this coming week. We’ve all played in big situations this year and have shown that we can execute. We are all confident in each other.”
Tight end Jay Rome
On the mindset versus last year’s SEC game . . .
“We’re a more confident team. The guys that played last year know they came up short, and after they tasted that victory they didn’t get it. I feel like the taste was left in their mouths all year and we’ve had that in the back of our minds. All year we’ve wanted to get back and finish the drill.”
On play of tight ends . . .
“We’ll have a key role in the passing game and running game. Over the past couple weeks we’ve come on a bit more in the passing game, and we’re taking the opportunity to get better and make plays. We’re ready for what’s thrown our way, and if it is, we’re going to make plays.”
Linebacker Amarlo Herrera
On label as one of the best defenses in the nation . . .
“I feel the same as some of my teammates that have been saying we’re the best, I back those guys up. I haven’t seen anybody play as well as we have in the second half of the season. You can probably say that we were lacking some confidence early in the year because we weren’t playing as well as we should have been, but now we have the swagger back and we’re feeling like the best again.”
On playing with emotion . . .
“We just have to play with more confidence and keep up the same level of confidence that we’ve been playing with these past couple of weeks. It all goes back to what Shawn [Williams] said earlier this season, and that whole week of practice leading up to the Florida game. It has a lot to do with the way we prepared for that week and how we’ve been preparing from that day on and really playing up to par.”
On playing in the Georgia Dome in game of this magnitude . . .
“It wouldn’t matter where we’re playing at. It doesn’t matter how big the stage or where we’re playing, we’re just going to go out there and keep playing the way we have been all year, especially the second half. We’re going to play just like that. It’s a big difference having gone through the same experience last year, because now we know what to expect. We know to try and control our emotions and not let them overwhelm us because I think that’s what happened last year. Our emotions ran out and we stopped playing with confidence and with the crowd emotion. I think we’re feeling more confident going into this game because we’ve had a great year and we’ve been playing together for a long time now.”
Linebacker Christian Robinson
On turning around defensive play in second half of the season . . .
“It’s kind of a tale of two seasons. The first half of the season we didn’t really live up to anybody’s expectations on defense, and now we’re winning the way people thought we should have been winning all along. Now we have a chance to really do something special, something that hasn’t been done here in a long, long time so now we have to see it all the way out.”
On getting to play in the SEC Championship game . . .
“When you live around the metro (Atlanta) area, getting a chance to play in the (Georgia) Dome is something that you dream about. Especially on this stage, and with what this game means, everybody from around that area knows the significance of this game. This is huge. This is everything that we’ve dreamed of our whole lives and now we’ll have the world watching us.”