In most every SEC Eastern Division poll, there were the Bulldogs, where they spent most of the 1990s, third behind Tennessee and Florida. Three straight years of finishes in the top two seemed forgotten.
Now, heading into Saturday’s game against Vanderbilt, No. 5 Georgia is undefeated and the highest ranked team in the conference. The Bulldogs would have to suffer a significant collapse to fall to third in the East and are the new favorites to finish first and make their third trip to the SEC Championship game in the last four years.
“I felt like we had as good a chance this year to be in the fight as we had in any other year,” Coach Mark Richt said. “I’m not really surprised, but I guess a lot of people thought it was doomsday.”
The Bulldogs (5-0, 3-0 SEC) lost quarterback David Greene and his sidekick, defensive end David Pollack, not to mention safety Thomas Davis and linebacker Odell Thurman. The Volunteers, with their 15 starters returning, and the Gators, with Urban Meyer riding in to save the day, were the chic picks to win the division.
“Just around here, we all knew what kind of talent we had,” said D.J. Shockley, who took over for Greene. “We all knew we could play with anybody in this league. We knew we could win games. This is not a surprise to us, but I’m sure it’s a surprise to a lot of people.”
Despite not finishing lower than No. 7 in the country during the Richt era, the Bulldogs were picked to finish 13th before the season began. Internally, though, there always was a sense that this year would finish in the top 10 or beyond, Richt and several players said.
“The media expectations were down about us, but we know the game of football is simple,” senior Kedric Golston said. “It’s one play at a time. If you can get better each and every day and you win your battle every single play, the game will take of itself.”
The feeling that Georgia’s players would win more battles than they lost started months before the season began, Richt said.
“If you want to go all the way back to mat drills, they didn’t flinch,” he said. “They worked hard. A lot of teams have survived the mat drills. This team kind of attacked it.”
That feeling continued into the summer, when as many as 70 members of the team would gather at the home of Daniel Inman, Josh Brock and Joe Tereshinski for cookouts, Golston said.
“It was like feeding an army,” he said. “We all do a lot of things together, with each other’s families and stuff like that, so it’s kind of like we’re all brothers.”
The players talked to each other like family members, Richt said, during two-a-day fall practices when the coaches put a chair they called “the hot seat” on the field and encouraged players to sit in front of their teammates and talk about what it meant to play with them.
“A lot of guys just really opened up, mostly seniors, and the players really responded in a very strong way, in an emotional way,” Richt said. “You just felt the team being built. You felt a very strong bond. It looked like the ingredients were there, and you’re thinking, ‘We’ve got a chance to be pretty good here.’ You just didn’t know if it was going to equate into victories or not. So far it has.”