The regular season is over, and all we have left in the 2013 season is a bowl game that we will be playing for pride and conference bragging rights. If you'd told me on August 30 that we'd finish the regular season 8-4 with a (likely) Gator Bowl berth against a Big Ten team, I wouldn't have called you a liar, but I'd have been incredibly disappointed. As we sit here on December 1, however, I couldn't be more proud of the 2013 edition of the Georgia Bulldogs.
The perspective of time will undoubtedly alter how we view this season, but before the memories become stale with age, I want to take a quick look back and revisit all of the adversity that this team has overcome to obtain the results they have earned:
Game 1: @ #8 Clemson (ABC, 8:00 PM)
The Georgia Bulldogs, ranked #5 in the preseason, opened their season by traveling to the "other" Death Valley for a Saturday night game against the #8-ranked Clemson Tigers. We were operating without our starting placekicker (Marshall Morgan), and our defense was basically an entire unit that had never really played together before. Brent Musberger got a(nother) chance to say, "You are looking LIVE at Death Valley in Clemson, South Carolina," then waxed poetic about a team boarding some buses before the game to circle the stadium and run down a hill. The Tigers drew first blood, but on the drive immediately following their score, Todd Gurley broke his first rush of the season for 75 yards and a touchdown.
While celebrating that 75-yard touchdown, the injury bug with which Georgia fans and players would become so well acquainted claimed its first victim as Malcolm Mitchell tore his ACL. And just like that, our best WR was out for the season in the first quarter of the first game.
Our freshman-laden defense made a bunch of freshman mistakes, but our offense kept us in the game, coming up just 3 points short at the end in a 38-35 loss. We still entertained possible national championship hopes, but the bubble of optimism that had accompanied us since the "just 5 yards short of a national title" 2012 season was burst during the first game. Nevertheless, both team and fans remained undaunted into our next monster test...
Game 2: vs. #6 South Carolina (ESPN, 4:30 PM)
Our national championship hopes were on life support, but the now-#11 Dawgs rolled into their home opener in Sanford Stadium with a clean SEC slate and some unfinished business against the #6-ranked South Carolina Gamecocks, who were the owners of a 3-game winning streak against the Classic City Canines for the first time in the history of the entire series. The crowd was as raucous as Sanford Stadium has seen, and Aaron Murray finally shed the "chokes in big games" moniker as the good guys built a 10-point lead heading into the 4th quarter and finished the drill for a 41-30 victory.
And with that, a Mark Richt-coached team still has never lost 4 games in a row to any team, and our "poor record" that people like to quote against ranked/top 10/teams that they want us to lose to takes another hit.
We were able to savor the flavor of once again downing the Ol' Ball Coach during an open date, and then...
Game 3: vs. North Texas (SEC Network, 12:21 PM)
The 9th-ranked Dawgs let the visiting North Texas Mean Green hang around a little longer than we were probably comfortable with, and our defense still looked like it was being executed by a bunch of freshmen (which, well, it was), but we eventually put the Texans away with a suitable scoreline in a 45-21 win.
With our early-season breather completed, we then turned our attention to the third top-10 opponent we would face in the first 4 weeks of the season, with...
Game 4: vs. #6 LSU (CBS, 3:30 PM)
Our early season gauntlet had been well-documented before the season even started, and our third marquee matchup against a top-notch opponent in 4 games lived up to its billing. In our first CBS-televised game of the year, Aaron Murray once again emphatically shut up his detractors by shredding the LSU Tigers for 449 total yards. Zach Mettenberger put on his own display of offensive prowess, and as we suspected would be the case with our still-wet-behind-the-ears defense, the game basically came down to who had the ball last. Fortunately, Georgia had the ball last, and Aaron Murray engineered a 75-yard drive to score a touchdown with 1:47 left on the clock in the 4th quarter. LSU couldn't put together an effective two minute drill, and Georgia was sitting on top of the SEC world with a 2-0 conference record (and at 3-1 overall) after the 44-41 victory over the Bayou Bengals. During the game, Todd Gurley went to the locker room with an ankle sprain of unknown severity, but Keith Marshall, Brendan Douglas, and J.J. Green filled in more than admirably in the fantastic win in front of another raucous Sanford Stadium crowd.
After this game, strong consideration was given at Dawg Sports to adding a disclaimer at the top of the website warning all those with heart conditions that Georgia Bulldogs football was hazardous to their health. We decided against the disclaimer, but would be proven wrong many, many times later in the year.
But, really, at that point, who cared? We had beaten, at that time, the two most difficult SEC teams on our schedule, and we were effectively on cruise control for the rest of the year, right? Riiiiiiight. Buckle your seat belts, boys and girls...
Game 5: @ Tennessee (CBS, 3:30 PM)
Uncle Verne and Gary apparently liked what they saw in Athens against LSU so much that they wanted to see more of it in Knox-vegas, so the now-#6-ranked Classic City Canines kicked off our second CBS game in a row against the Tennessee Volunteers. Unfortunately, what they saw was the first steps of descent down into a season that would only thereafter be able to be referred to as "cursed."
First, Todd Gurley was out with the ankle sprain suffered against LSU, which we knew at the time was going to cost him at least 2 games. Then, Gurley's almost-equally-amazing backup, Keith Marshall, was taken off the field with a season-ending torn ACL knee injury. Then, receiver Michael Bennett was taken off the field with what we feared was an ACL, but which turned out to be "only" a torn meniscus. Regardless, he was going to be out for a long while. Then, WR Justin Scott-Wesley was taken off the field with what turned out to be another season-ending ACL injury.
In spite of the devastating losses on offense, the Dawgs managed somehow to push through the adversity and tie the game with only 0:05 left in regulation, sending the game into overtime. And in that overtime, the Vols graciously fumbled the ball through the endzone on their first possession, allowing the Dawgs to kick a field goal to conclude a 34-31 victory. Credit to the defense for causing Alton Howard to feel like he needed to stretch the ball out enough to cause the fumble, but I also have to call 'em like I see 'em... and the Vols literally fumbled that game away.
It was another dramatic victory for the men in red and black, but I couldn't help but feel distraught after this game. We were undefeated in the SEC, but for how long? We'd lost our two best running backs and 3 of our 4 best wide receivers. We still had all-everything quarterback Aaron Murray... but to whom was he going to give the ball?
Game 6: vs. #25 Missouri (ESPN, Noon)
Well, we found out to whom Aaron Murray was going to give the ball in the very next game against the Missouri Tigers. Unfortunately, that answer was "not too much of anybody." Our young defense was starting to find their game form, but our newly-sputtering offense didn't help them at all by giving up a 21-yard scoop-and-score fumble, and then fumbling the ball again at the Mizzou 6. The Tigers from the "good Columbia" rode those miscues to a 28-10 lead at halftime.
Aaron Murray is nothing if not the consummate competitor, though, and through sheer heart and determination he led the Dawgs to within 2 points early in the 4th quarter (28-26 after a failed 2-point conversion). A defensive lapse followed by an interception deep in Georgia territory, however, gave the Tigers 2 4th quarter touchdowns, providing the final scores in a 41-26 loss.
The massive losses we had experienced on offense unquestionably cost us in this game. Although Douglas and Green are very talented running backs, they are both true freshmen and are certainly not Gurley and Marshall. Aaron Murray was clearly uncomfortable with his new-look receiving corps, and though we were still technically in the SEC race (we only had 1 loss, after all) many of us in the Bulldog Nation, myself included, began to despair and gnash our teeth at our bad luck. But whoo, buddy. We weren't fully acquainted with bad luck yet.
Game 7: @ Vanderbilt (CBS, Noon)
The 15th-ranked Bulldogs rolled into Nashville relatively confident for this game, which also happened to be the first time CBS had televised Vanderbilt Commodores home game since 1982. Unfortunately, we were not informed that we would be playing both against the Commies and the officials, and that lack of information cost us dearly. First, Ray Drew, our DE who was finally coming into his own and displaying the potential we all saw in him as a much-heralded recruit two years ago, was ejected on the softest, stupidest targeting penalty you will ever see upheld after replay. (It's sad that I have to qualify that remark, given what came next.) Josh Harvey-Clemons also left the game with an injury, leaving an already-too-thin-and-inexperienced defense even thinner and less experienced.
Still, Aaron Murray managed to guide the offense to a 27-14 lead heading into the fourth quarter. Vandy attempted to mount a comeback, only to be stopped on their first drive of the final stanza by a massive Ramik Wilson defensive stop on a 4th down and 4 play at the UGA 30 yard line. And then, the officials struck again. Wilson's impressive perfect-form hit that jarred the ball loose from the Vanderbilt receiver was flagged, again, for targeting. Upon replay review, Wilson's ejection was overturned, but for the horrible offense of forcing the official to go to all the effort of getting that flag out of his pocket to begin with, the Dawgs were still stuck with the original 15 yard penalty, giving Vanderbilt a first down at the UGA 15 yard line. The Commies would go on to score, and our punt team would botch the snap on the next possession, giving Vandy the ball at the 13 yard line. HERP DERP, and Georgia left Nashville with a 31-27 loss. And on top of all that, Chris Conley went down with a sprained ankle on the final play of the game, literally adding insult to injury.
I think the only thing that saved my home from major (and possibly irreparable) structural damage was the fact that this game was the game we chose for the annual Dawg Sports Goat Roast, and I was watching this game with my blogging compatriots at the Blind Pig Tavern in Athens. Misery loves company, and dang, I sure did love me some company that day. (And another "thank you" to the staff at the Blind Pig for being gracious and understanding when we wanted to smear red velvet cake all over the walls in the hopes that it would help us win the game. Them's good folks.)
We licked our wounds during our second bye week of the year before setting out for the annual tussle by the St. John's River...
Game 8: vs. Florida (@JAX) (CBS, 3:30 PM)
The Bulldogs, now unranked, were still riding a two-year winning streak into the World's Largest Outdoor Cocktail Party for literally the first time since the 1980's. On top of that, the Florida Gators were reeling, having just come off back-to-back losses to LSU and Missouri. There was hope, though, because we were finally getting Todd Gurley back! (Kinda.) Michael Bennett also returned for this game, and made his presence known on several key drives in the clutch.
This game was, though, the Todd Gurley show. Gurley was finally healthy, but he was not in "game shape," and his lack of conditioning showed. Gurley scored touchdowns on each of Georgia's first two possessions against the Sunshine State Saurians, one rushing TD and one receiving TD. After that, he was essentially done for the day (though he did play sparingly in the second half). Fortunately, those 14 points were all we needed from him. Marshall Morgan also came through in fine fashion with 3 field goals, the defense actually stopped the Gator offense (when they weren't being handed the ball deep in our territory by offensive and special teams blunders, anyway) and Georgia carded a 23-20 victory against the hated Gators.
Our SEC dreams were gone, but at least we saw our boys fight tooth and nail with all that they had, leaving it all out on the field to ensure that the Red and Black claimed a third straight victory in this series, which kept Secret Agent Double-Oh Boom winless for his career in Jacksonville. (That would be 0-7 for Coach Larry, in case you're counting at home, which of course we all are.)
Game 9: vs. Appalachian State (WSB-TV, Noon)
The Mountaineers aren't exactly the class of Division I-AA that they have been in the past, but neither are the Georgia Southern Eagles. (Snicker.) Unlike some teams did with their inferior I-AA opponents, we suitably crushed the Backwoodsmen from Boone, giving Hutson Mason his first notable playing time of the season in the second half en route to a 45-6 victory.
Game 10: @ #7 Auburn (CBS, 3:30 PM)
For the fifth time this season, CBS turned to Georgia (once again ranked, barely, at #25) to highlight their SEC television package, this time on the plains against the #7 Auburn Tigers. Unfortunately, early in the game we looked to be far outmatched, and it looked like we were simply starting to give up on a season that had been snake-bitten for a long time by this point.
But no... Aaron Murray would not let his offense roll over and play dead for the War Eagle faithful. Trailing by 20 points in the 4th quarter, Georgia's greatest QB combined with one of our greatest RB's to lead an epic comeback that resulted in the Dawgs taking a 38-37 lead with 1:49 remaining in the game. Even after the Tiglesmen's fluke-of-all-flukes hail mary touchdown, Aaron Murray was still leading his team back on a one-minute drill that almost re-took the lead for an even more improbable win. (And on the last play of the game, Murray was hit solidly helmet-to-helmet on a pass attempt, which went uncalled by the officials. Oh, my, yes, we can't have a game's result altered by an unfortunate targeting call...)
At any rate, the Aubies escaped with one of the most improbable victories of all time, leaving the Dawgs to lick their wounds in a 43-38 loss.
Game 11: vs. Kentucky (ESPNU, 7:00 PM)
On senior day, a massive crowd (far beyond what one would expect for the final home game in such a disappointing season) gathered in Sanford Stadium to send the 2013 seniors, including Aaron Murray, off with a bang. And that they most undisputably did. Unfortunately, the college football gods hate Georgia this year, and in one of the worst strokes of fate in a season swimming with them, the most prolific quarterback in Georgia history was forced out of the game with a season-ending torn ACL on senior day.
Georgia was already ahead by 3 scores when Murray went down, and Hutson Mason filled in quite capably, leading the Dawgs to a 59-17 victory that wasn't even as close as the score indicated. And everybody liked Mason and was happy for him that he stepped in and picked up Murray's role without missing a beat... but seeing our all-everything QB struck down in a meaningless game against an overmatched, inferior opponent just seemed to coalesce all the horrid suck that had surrounded this season for many people.
The Georgia Bulldogs do their business better than almost anybody else in college football, and they do it the right way. We have high standards for character, academics, and athletics, and we accept nothing short of excellence on the field and off. And yet, fate kept crushing our hearts and dreams over and over this year... but the men who wear the red and black simply refused to give in and quit. How can you not love these guys forever??
Even with all of that said, however, there was still one more game to be played, no matter who was healthy and who wasn't...
Game 12: @ Georgia Tech (ABC, 3:30 PM)
I don't have to tell you how this one against the Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets turned out. Just as with the Auburn game, we clawed our way back from a deep hole (that was, in fairness, our own fault for getting into). We could have given up when we were down 3 scores in the first half, but we didn't. The man who will lead our team next year didn't give up, his receivers didn't give up, and hell, son, we know Todd Gurley didn't give up. The Dawgs carded a 41-34 victory in double overtime, proving once again that We Run This State.
We could have given up when our collective national championship dreams were crushed in the very first game. We could have all given up when half the damn offense went down with major injuries on Rocky Top. We could have given up when Mizzou took us out of SEC contention, or when the officials really took us out of SEC contention against Vandy. But this 2013 Georgia Bulldogs team doesn't have the word "quit" in its vocabulary. They fight to the end. They play for each other. They play for their team. And they play for the (by-god) Bulldog Nation.
Our ledger might record the season as an 8-4 result that fell far below preseason expectations, but I can't ever remember a time that I've been prouder of a Georgia Bulldog team's collective effort. Lady Luck smacked us in the face over and over again, but the men wearing the Red and Black simply refused to go down. We kept getting up off the turf, brushing ourselves off, and coming back at our opponents with all the intestinal fortitude that we could muster.
We have one more game to go, but at this point, I don't really care where it is or against whom it is played. I know the Bulldog Nation will show up to cheer them on one last time, because they're in our hearts now, and forever. The 2013 Georgia Bulldogs football team will always be one of my favorites. They got beaten down over and over again by forces beyond their control, but they refused to back down and steadfastly refused to surrender. These men, every single damn one of 'em, are Damn Good Dawgs.