Since toppling the Spartans, however, the attitude at the Georgia football facilities has been a bit different. The season hadn’t been a disappointment, but that didn’t mean the Bulldogs weren’t disappointed, and even in the first few days of their offseason workouts, a new focus emerged in the locker room.
“We’re wasting no time,” senior safety Bryan Evans said. “I think this might be the hardest we’ve ever worked coming out of a December into January.”
The changes began early. Workouts have a quicker tempo, and the strength and conditioning staff broke the team into smaller groups to promote more personal interaction.
Just a few weeks removed from their season finale, players are back to lifting and running every day, and while they aren’t required to do more than the standard offseason training regiment before spring practice begins in March, Evans said players are taking on as much as they can.
“We’re lifting and running every day,” Evans said. “Some people go out and do drills, but it’s not mandatory. But every time we get a chance, we go out and work on our foot skills and things like that.”
It’s not just the players putting in the extra time.
While the coaching staff is handling a full slate of recruiting as signing day approaches, the focus on preparing the players already in Athens has remained sharp. Unlike years past, fifth-year senior Jeff Owens said, it’s hard to spend much time in the weight room or film room and not bump into a member of the coaching staff, making sure the work is going smoothly.
“I can tell it’s a real big difference,” Owens said. “We have coaches watching, wanting to spot you. It was never like that before. It just shows we want to win it all.”
In the weeks leading up to Georgia’s bowl game, head coach Mark Richt lamented a more relaxed approach he had taken toward practice in 2008, due in part to the team’s seemingly endless string of injuries. There was less tackling and a slower tempo during practice, and the results showed up on the field, but that relaxed attitude came to an abrupt end as players returned from winter break.
“The intensity has really picked up,” tailback Richard Samuel said. “The strength coaches are pushing harder. They just said it’s a new year, so we’re picking it up another level.”
The Bulldogs figured to be working at an elite level before the 2008 season, and they were roundly considered the top team in the nation in August.
It was SEC rival Florida, however, that ended up hoisting the national championship trophy at year’s end, and the Gators’ success was rooted in a grueling offseason workout campaign motivated by their 2007 loss to Georgia. Players did one crunch for each rushing yard Georgia had gained, one bench press for each point the Bulldogs had scored. It was a confluence of motivation and focus that resulted in a resounding 49-10 thumping of the Bulldogs on Nov. 1 – a game that, for all intents and purposes ended Georgia’s hopes of an SEC title.
Time time, it’s the Bulldogs with the bitter taste in their mouths and the sharp sense of focus on gaining redemption for one of the programs most embarrassing losses in years.
“I feel that the score of 49-10 speaks for itself,” Evans said. “Nobody wants to feel that 49-10 again. That’s pretty much what everybody is thinking about – 49-10, every time we get in the weight room. If that doesn’t drive you, I don’t know what will.”
For safe measure, Florida head coach Urban Meyer added a dash of humiliation to the proceedings.
As retribution for Georgia’s on-field celebration in 2007, Meyer called two timeouts in the final minute of Florida’s 39-point win in November, a move meant to prolong the Bulldogs’ agony. Instead, Owens said, it solidified Georgia’s resolve.
“You just look back at the Florida game,” Owens said. “They called two timeouts when they were up (in the final minute). You think about that and it shows the respect they have for us.”
Of course, the task of earning redemption won’t be a simple one.
While Florida returns nearly all of its national-championship roster, Georgia will open the season without some of its biggest stars. Seniors Mohamed Massaquoi, Dannell Ellerbe and CJ Byrd have moved on, while underclassmen Matthew Stafford, Knowshon Moreno and Asher Allen chose to depart early for the NFL draft.
But unlike the start to the 2008 season when the Bulldogs appeared on the front cover of Sports Illustrated being proclaimed the best team in college football, this season they’ll happily play the role of underdogs. While 2008 was marked by expectation, 2009 will be all about motivation.
“I felt like at times, and really throughout my career, you can see certain games where it just seemed like we were flat,” said senior Joe Cox, who replaces Stafford as the team’s starting quarterback. “We just needed somebody or something to spark it, and hopefully I can bring the way I like to play, hopefully that can change some things and maybe bring some fire to us.”
While Cox’s leadership will be appreciated – along with that of returning starters like Owens, Geno Atkins and Rennie Curran – the fire for this season was set during the low points of last year.
Evans said he watched Florida win the national title earlier this month with a heavy heart. He rooted for them, he said, to support the SEC, but it was hard not to think about what might have been.
“We feel we could be in that position,” Evans said. “Instead of seeing LSU and Florida winning, we feel that Georgia can be a winner, so that’s how we’re going in there and working out.”