Georgia not dancing around expectations as a title contender (cont.)
The normally low-key Richt took stock of his downtrodden players and decided that "we had no fire. ... I decided I'm going to get all exuberant, and maybe I can rally the troops against Vanderbilt." When that didn't work (Georgia fell behind 10-0 at halftime before rallying to win 20-17), he concocted the Florida celebration scheme.
The game wound up serving as a national coming-out party both for redshirt freshman Moreno, who ran for 188 yards and five touchdowns, and the Dawgs' previously unheralded defense, which held eventual Heisman winner Tim Tebow (albeit limited by a bruised shoulder) to a season-low 221 yards of total offense. Two weeks later, Georgia put up 45 points on an Auburn defense that finished the year sixth nationally in total defense. The season culminated with the Dawgs suffocating record-setting Hawaii QB Colt Brennan in a 41-10 Sugar Bowl rout.
While Georgia's second-half surge may have blindsided its opponents, its architect claims he saw it coming.
"I was thankful, but if you look at the big picture, I wasn't all that surprised," said Richt. "I felt [going into the season] that the team would be very inconsistent early on but would have more of a dramatic rise in play, because I knew we were going to play so many young guys. I felt like by mid-to-late season, we were going to be a pretty good ballclub."
That maturity gained last season figures to carry over to this one. Stafford, already projected by some as a potential No. 1 draft pick next spring despite mostly modest production his first two seasons, will benefit from playing behind a more experienced line and with a deeper receiving corps. Moreno will be able to share the backfield load with spring sensation Caleb King, a redshirt freshman. And many of the key defensive players last seen shutting down Hawaii's prolific offense -- cornerbacks Asher Allen and Prince Miller, linebacker Rennie Curran, defensive tackle Geno Atkins -- are only now entering their second seasons as starters.
It wasn't only Richt's players who appeared to evolve last season. The coach himself has long been known for his almost overly reserved sideline demeanor. It's a trait he chalks up to his many years as a play-caller, a job that tends to require keeping one's emotions in check at all times. He's even the rare head coach who prefers not to harangue referees. As a result, his celebration scheme against Florida seemed at the time to be completely out of character.
However, ever since handing over his offensive coordinator duties last season to former Dawgs QB Mike Bobo, Richt's players have seen their coach in a different light.
"He's changed completely from my freshman year to now," said senior defensive tackle Jeff Owens. "His swagger has changed. He was more of a quiet, laid-back guy at first. Now he's more energetic, jumping around, yelling and waving flags."
Long overshadowed in his own conference by more gregarious head coaches like Urban Meyer and Steve Spurrier, nothing would raise Richt's profile more than a national title run. To do so, however, the Dawgs will have to survive an extremely daunting gauntlet.
While any SEC schedule by nature is littered with potential stumbling points, Georgia's seems to fall particularly unfavorably. Of the five ranked teams from last season that appear on the Dawgs' schedule, only the Tennessee game is at home. September brings road trips to South Carolina, which handed Georgia one of its two losses last season, and Arizona State, a 10-win team from a year ago. And the Dawgs' three West division opponents happen to be that division's predicted top three teams: LSU, Auburn and Alabama.
"We have the toughest schedule out there," said Owens. "We could slip up on any week."
No game figures to loom larger, however, than the Dawgs' Nov. 1 rematch with the Gators. For two straight days, questions about "revenge" have dominated the interview sessions here -- both with Florida's players on Wednesday and Georgia's players Thursday. Richt said he called Gators coach Urban Meyer the day after the game to apologize, but reports surfaced this week about comments made by Meyer in an upcoming book he co-authored in which he describes the stunt as " ... a bad deal. And it will forever be in the mind of Urban Meyer and our football team."
If both teams live up to their top-five billing, the game will almost assuredly become the most anticipated in the 86-year history of the teams' rivalry.
"I don't think there's any doubt [last year's game] intensified the rivalry," said Richt, "but what intensified the rivalry is that we won, okay? I mean, that's the reality."
So, too, is the reality that any potential title run by the Dawgs this fall will almost assuredly require another victory at the site where their buzz originated. This time, they'll probably have to do it without The Dance.