After season Dawgs must look in the mirror

Mark Richt

ATHENS – This summer, though still three games away from a football standpoint, will be different for Georgia coach Mark Richt regardless of how the season ends.

The Bulldogs (6-4, 3-4 SEC) will finish without double-digit victories and out of the nation's Top 10 for the first time since 2001. Unless they notch an upset or two, they will finish out of the Top 25 altogether. They've already lost more SEC games than in any season under Richt, and one more loss will mark a personal-low for him in his 23-year coaching career.

Tennessee's Phil Fulmer knows the feeling. The Volunteers, who had set an 80 percent winning percentage in Fulmer's first 13 seasons, finished 5-6 last year, under. 500 and out of a bowl game for the first time in Fulmer's career.

"It was brand new for all of us," Fulmer said. "As the head coach, it was important for me to take a lead role in righting the ship. We made the changes we thought necessary to make, and we made sure everyone understood the goals, that we weren't going to tolerate any more distractions."

The most important lesson to be learned from the Volunteers is that a one-year slump doesn't have to lead to a prolonged slide. Tennessee is 7-2 this season and was ranked in the Top 10 before a narrow loss to LSU last weekend.

Auburn and its turnaround from 2003 to 2004 is another close-to-home example that one step back can turn into two steps forward if the down time is handled adeptly.

"I hope this is a one-year blip," senior safety Tra Battle said. "I hope it's like many people say, a rebuilding season. I hope that when this senior class leaves, the rest of the guys look on this season and say, ‘OK, we know what not to do. Let's go and correct all the mistakes we made last year and get back to the caliber of play we're used to.'"

Auburn wide receiver Courtney Taylor said this season can be a positive in the future for Georgia's program. Taylor was a redshirt freshman in 2003, when the Tigers entered the season ranked No. 1 by Sports Illustrated and finished 8-5.

"Coach (Tommy) Tuberville always stressed to us playing one game at a time," Taylor said. "After that season, the only thing we could do was go back and regroup and come back and play one game at a time. I feel like ever since that year that's what we've been doing. To me, that's a big plus for our team to have guys who have been through that situation."

Tuberville was nearly fired after that season, but the Tigers rebounded and went 13-0 the following year and finished No. 2 in the country.

"I think each season is different. It's kind of like a new life," Tiger senior linebacker Karibi Dede said. "Each team has its own kind of attitude and demeanor about itself, its own style, its own work ethic. It was a real disappointing season, but in 2004, I think the coaches did a good job of taking what we had and emphasizing our strengths and trying to win ball games like that."

While Tennessee made a major assistant coaching change – replacing offensive coordinator Randy Sanders with David Cutcliffe – that's not a necessary ingredient to stop the bleeding, Fulmer said. Tennessee's stumble was the result of "assuming too much and taking too much for granted," Fulmer said, and the only remedy was hard work.

"That's the main thing you've got to do," he said, "is go to work with an attitude."

The Volunteers made a change heading into this season by not naming captains, Fulmer said.

"We wanted more involvement from more people and that's worked out well for us," Fulmer said. "Some guys who weren't necessarily vocal guys have become good leaders."

Battle has faith, he said, that the Bulldogs will make any change necessary to turn things around not only for the remainder of this season but also heading into next.

"We all are guys that are used to winning and we have coaches who are used to winning," he said. "They know what to do to win because they've been there before. I think this is just a season where we couldn't put everything together for 60 minutes. We're not losing a lot of guys this year, hopefully they can learn from this."

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