(Author's Note: I apologize in advance for the fact that, frankly, what follows does not do justice to yesterday's battle between the hedges. Perhaps the intensity of the emotions surrounding this win over this rival has made it impossible for me to express myself to my satisfaction regarding the scene in the Classic City yesterday afternoon. In a way, you just had to be there, and I am sorry I am unable to put down in words how extraordinary the experience was. After a win like that, you deserve someone like Johnny or Jonathan, but what you're stuck with is me, for which I humbly express my most profound regret.)
Normally, I get my postgame write-up prepared and posted much earlier in the day on Sunday than this, but I wanted to let this victory soak in a little first.
You are as familiar with the box score as I am, so you know already that, over the course of the last three games, Mike Bobo's offense has begun to unleash its big play potential and Willie Martinez's defense has performed better than the opposing teams' point totals would tend to indicate.
I'd like to be able to bring you some novel take on yesterday's festivities, but the fact is that Doug Gillett hit the nail on the head. We always knew this team had talent to burn, but inexperience and sloppiness routinely prevented the squad from reaching its potential. This has been a source of frustration and consternation for Georgia's coaches, players, and fans alike, culminating in the debacle in Knoxville, when the 'Dawgs hit rock bottom on Rocky Top.
There came a point, though, when this team began to put it all together. It happened so subtly that it took a couple of games before we even realized that the long strikes to the likes of Sean Bailey and Mohamed Massaquoi weren't flukes, they were part of an emerging pattern as young players began to mature and coaches with solid track records of success were able to translate that progress off the field into achievement on the field.
In the meantime, we in Bulldog Nation had gotten nervous. We saw the 'Dawgs go 9-7 between the 2005 trip to Jacksonville and the 2006 trek to Lexington, and we began to doubt. Since then, the Red and Black have gone on an 11-2 run and no team in the Southeastern Conference, L.S.U. included, is playing better football right this very minute than the team that came into the 2007 campaign sporting the best record of any team in the league over the previous decade and the previous half-decade.
It isn't just that the team is playing well; it's that Georgia football has become fun. I don't know that I've ever been in Sanford Stadium for a game that was as enjoyable as yesterday's. The fans were in the stands early, dressed for the occasion, and offering their full-throated support from beginning to end. The players fed off of the crowd, played their hearts out, and had a fine time doing it.
The performance to which we were treated in Athens on Saturday was an effectively blended amalgamation of the 2005 Boise State game, the 2006 Auburn game, and the 2007 Florida game. As with the first of these, the Georgia D asserted itself early and often, leading off with an interception and continuing to harass the opposition throughout the evening. As with the second of these, Brandon Cox once again proved Reggie Ball-like in his inability to perform better against the Bulldogs in his later years as he had in his days as an underclassman. (I will confess to having yelled after the latest in a long line of miscues by the Auburn quarterback, while fully aware of the homophones involved, "You suck, Cox!")
Finally, and most importantly, the Classic City Canines borrowed a page from the latest edition of the World's Largest Outdoor Cocktail Party. No, I'm not talking about the penalties . . . in Jacksonville, unlike in Athens, those penalties were deliberately incurred and actually occurred. I am referring to the fact that, between the hedges as on the banks of the St. John's River, the 'Dawgs surged ahead to an early lead, then saw an orange-and-blue-clad rival come storming back to take the lead.
Georgia's losses to Auburn at home have become so commonplace that Bulldog Nation may be forgiven for the many times the Red and Black's fans, after having seen the Plainsmen grab the momentum in Sanford Stadium, have thought (as they have thought so many times in Jacksonville): "Here we go again." We didn't think that in Jacksonville this year, though, and we didn't think in Athens last night.
There has never been any question of Georgia's talent. There has never been any question of Mark Richt's ability as a coach. There have, however, been questions about the Bulldogs' toughness, dating back to Pat Dye's "man enough" slur prior to the 2002 Alabama game. Can the 'Dawgs take a punch, or, when smacked in the mouth by the Gators or the Tigers, will they curl up into the fetal position and lose?
That question has been answered. These Bulldogs bite back. This year's senior class will leave Athens with a 2-2 record against Auburn, a 2-2 record against Florida, and a winning (and perhaps unblemished) record against Georgia Tech. This year's senior class, however, is more noteworthy for its quality than its quantity, as few of the stars of the 2007 'Dawgs will not be on hand to don silver britches and red jerseys---and, occasionally, black jerseys---as members of the 2008 Georgia squad.
At this point, it appears doubtful that Tennessee will stumble and allow the Red and Black to claim the Eastern Division crown. There is still way too much football left to be played in this quirky season to begin thinking about at-large berths in the Bowl Championship Series.
While we---and, yes, I have to include myself among that we, which is why I write a weblog and Mark Richt coaches football---have been carping and complaining, something has gone from horribly wrong to ringingly right, virtually in the blink of an eye. By the time the din died down from our collective complaining about six straight losses to division rivals, it was time to raise our voices in unison to cheer for the first Georgia team in 25 years to beat Florida and Auburn in the same season. (For those of you scoring at home, by the way, Steve Spurrier's South Carolina squad now has lost three straight games to S.E.C. East opponents.)
You may have noticed that, for a posting regarding a win over the Bulldogs' oldest rivals, this has been notably devoid of declarations that I hate Auburn. Don't get me wrong; I do hate Auburn, but this win wasn't about how we feel about other teams. It was about how we feel about our own.
In the not too distant past, Sanford Stadium was a staid monument commemorating a storied heritage that was gathering dust in the history books, a tradition that had become faded and lifeless, without any meaningful connection to the here and now. It is not enough simply to state the obvious truth that three trips to the conference championship game in the previous five years have changed our attitudes and expectations dramatically, because we oftentimes have seemed no different as fans from who we were when sitting in the stands during the doldrums of the 1990s.
It isn't just that this well-coached, extremely talented team is playing up to its potential at last. It's that Bulldog Nation is newly energized. Yesterday, Sanford Stadium was rocking in a way it hasn't been in my memory, and maybe ever. Against the Gators in Jacksonville and against the Tigers in Athens, the Bulldogs took back their turf with a vengeance and they---and we---had a fine time in the process.
Last night, as the clock was creeping towards 8:00 and I felt so worn out that I thought Surely it is five or six hours later than that clock claims, I was sitting in a car on the top level of the parking deck, waiting in vain for the line to begin moving so that we could make our winding way down to the street. While we sat there, listening to the postgame report on the radio, we witnessed one of the quintessential scenes seen on game days, which remind us just how much we love our team and why.
Two boys, maybe ten years old, one of them wearing a David Greene jersey, were throwing a football back and forth on top of the parking deck. As they did so, someone in a car a little farther down the line turned on his stereo and began playing "Crank That Soulja Boy." The kid in the David Greene jersey had the ball in his hands, but he broke the rhythm of the game of pitch and catch long enough to go into the dance.
He knew the moves, and, when he had gone through them for one full cycle, he flowed effortlessly from the last dance step into his throwing motion, sending a tight spiral toward his friend. The ball left his hand, he slid smoothly back into the dance without missing a beat, and the kid on the receiving end of the pass made the catch.
That, in microcosm, was what Saturday was like in Bulldog Nation. Has there ever been a more fun time to be a Georgia fan than this?