That was the task this year for Georgia, and as the Bulldogs reach their bye week with a 4-3 record, the gauntlet proved to be even more difficult than the coach and his players might have imagined.
But while the road was a long and arduous one, it ended with a glimmer of hope. Following one of the most tumultuous weeks of Richt’s coaching career, the Bulldogs put an exclamation point on the first half of their season with a 34-10 thumping of Vanderbilt in a game that meant far more in terms of emotion than it did in the standings.
“I wouldn’t say we’re all the way there, but we made some strides,” wide receiver A.J. Green said. “Next week is a bye, and coming in from that seven-game stretch, grinding since camp, it feels good.”
Georgia will take the next week to work on feeling even better.
The team met for a film session Sunday and will practice Tuesday and Thursday, but the rest of the week is about getting stronger, getting healthier and getting rested.
“This season has just been an emotional roller coaster,” linebacker Rennie Curran said. “It’s been up and down and a grind, but we’ve been playing tough. Now we get this week to kind of sit back and evaluate and kind of start a new season.”
Two years ago, Georgia was in a similar position.
The Bulldogs went to Vanderbilt following a 4-2 opening stretch to the year and a blowout loss to Tennessee the week before. A bye week loomed, and Georgia played like it simply wanted the game to end and the break to begin. Only a late fumble forced by Darryl Gamble and a game-winning field goal by Brandon Coutu spared the team from defeat.
Two weeks later, however, a re-energized team took the field against archrival Florida, famously celebrated its first touchdown, then ran over the Gators en route to a commanding victory. The Bulldogs didn’t lose again that season and finished the year ranked No. 2 in the country.
That may not happen this season, Richt admits, but Georgia already has a leg up on that team from 2007.
“There was more emotion at this year’s Vanderbilt game,” Richt said. “Two years ago, we were trying to squeeze some emotion out of the guys. This game in particular, they were much more emotional. They did a good job of encouraging me, actually.”
The results showed on the field as Georgia turned in its best performance of the season running the football, had a strong defensive effort for the third time in the past four games and even got a few big plays from Prince Miller on special teams.
“This is our most complete game, but we’ve still got a lot of work to do,” Miller said.
That work continues this week, but at a slightly more relaxed pace. And after watching Florida nearly lost Saturday to Arkansas – a team Georgia has already beaten this season – spirits are high among the Bulldogs.
That’s not to say there isn’t a long way to go, and no one is promising a repeat of 2007. But the way Georgia sees it, the ship is headed in the right direction, and spirits are a lot higher than they were just a week ago.
“The pressure is on them,” cornerback Brandon Boykin said. “We’ve got nothing to lose. We can just go out there and play as hard as we can, and this momentum from this win, I feel like we’re going to carry that over and continue to get better.”