November 16, 2011

One more hurdle to jump



The question is fair and no doubt one many in the Bulldog Nation has been asking themselves following the big 45-7 win over Auburn - Is there a danger Georgia overlooks Kentucky this Saturday afternoon?

After all, one can argue that Joker Phillips' Wildcats (4-6, 1-5) are one of the two or three worse teams in the SEC, certainly from an offensive standpoint, where Kentucky ranks either 11th or 12th in 11 of the 33 team stat categories released every week by the conference office in Birmingham, Ala.

In other years, perhaps, but considering what is at stake for Georgia, where a win will put the 13th-ranked Bulldogs in the SEC Championship Game at the Georgia Dome - players say no chance.

"We're focused. We know what we have ahead of us. They have players, they have a lot of players from Georgia - we realize that, that grew up watching the Dawgs and we know they'd love to come back in front of their family and do well," linebacker Christian Robinson said. "We realize what they have strengths in and we realize what we still need to work on. We'll be ready."

Senior Ben Jones would certainly take offense if that somehow wasn't the case.

Nobody has epitomized the team's improved leadership more than the center from Centreville, Ala. who says the pain from the past two disappointing campaigns still rubs him extremely raw.

"Last year was rough, for the coaches, players, everything, but this year we were determined to turn this thing around, put Georgia back on track and I believe we've definitely done that," Jones said. "We've got to finish it this weekend; it's the biggest one of the year." Jones is correct.

By now, everyone knows the scenario - with a win Saturday against Kentucky (12:21, SEC Network) Georgia (8-2, 6-1) will have a chance to do something few thought possible not that many weeks ago - compete for the SEC Championship and a spot in the Sugar Bowl.
"It's what I've always dreamed of, winning the SEC, I was hoping we would win more than once, but here it is, my senior year and we can clinch it here at home," Jones said. "It's Senior Night; my whole family is going to be here. I couldn't ask for anything better."

Running back Carlton Thomas knows he's fortunate to be enjoying the ride.

Thomas was suspended twice this season - once for the opener against Boise State and again two weeks ago against New Mexico State - both for breaking unspecified team rules.

"It's been a pretty amazing journey. I hope someday somebody will write a book on it. It's been amazing, and really helped me personally grow as a person. All the things we went through, we went through it together," he said. "Although we're still enjoying some of the fruits of our labor we've still got to make sure we humble ourselves and not get too far ahead. When you start looking too far ahead, that's when things go wrong."

Quarterback Aaron Murray and senior tight end Aron White both point to the start of the journey, which actually began shortly after returning from Memphis and the Liberty Bowl debacle against UCF.

White concedes it was a difficult time.

Getting adjusted to new strength coach Joe Tereshinski's rigorous regimen was tough enough, but during that time attrition hit the Bulldogs hard, with 15 different players leaving the program, either via transfer, academics or season-ending injuries.

"Before we got our freshmen, we were very thin," White recalled. "It was a time where we really had to learn to lean on each other, pick each other up because we were down. We were going through some rough transformations and we needed to bond together instead of falling apart. But after a while, I think all the stress we had to go through and through our new strength and conditioning program it brought us together. We've had some good seniors come through here before, but I don't believe any have been closer than us."

Getting it done on the field was Georgia's next challenge, and after starting 0-2 there was certainly plenty of doubt that the Bulldogs would.

Murray was coming off the worse game of his collegiate career, after throwing a Pick-6 and losing a fumble for a touchdown, two plays that by themselves accounted for 14 of the Gamecocks' points. South Carolina won the game 45-42.

Facing a 0-2 start, another loss could well have sent the Bulldog program spiraling downward, and quite possibly, signaled the end of Mark Richt's tenure in Athens.

But despite the loss, Richt told anyone that would listen he still thought his 2011 Bulldogs had what it takes to become a special team.

Eight consecutive victories later, come Saturday afternoon; the Bulldogs have a grand opportunity to prove their coach correct.

"It's something we've been working for since January. We stumbled there at the beginning of the year, but we never lost confidence in ourselves, our teammates, and we've just been chipping away, chipping away, gaining confidence and hoping that South Carolina might lose a couple of games and if they did, that we'd be in position to do something," Murray said. "We've put ourselves in that position, we're one game away. It's pretty exciting. I know our guys are pumped up and ready to go."

So does Jones.

"We've seen the lows and we don't want to see those lows again. When you've been through that, you don't want to go through that again. That's the worse," he said. "When you're losing, that hurts. You don't want to pick up a paper, you don't want to look on the Internet; you don't want to look at the TV at all. You're 1-4. You want to see your name on the BCS, you want to pick up the paper and see where you are in the stats, where you are in the rankings. Last year we couldn't do that. This year, we've turned it around. But we've got one more step to make."

Anthony Dasher is the managing editor for UGASports
and he can be reached via email at dash@ugasports.com.