Joe Cox, Vince Vance, Shaun Chapas and Fred Munzenmaier have turned it into an old-fashioned road trip – four pals stuffed into an undersized vehicle for the long trek from Athens to Shreveport, La. for a football game.
For all of the Bulldogs, however, it’s been a winding road to an unfamiliar and unexpected destination this season, and after a season of disappointments and frustrations, keeping up spirits for a Dec. 28 date in the Independence Bowl hasn’t been the simplest of tasks.
Through ugly losses, poor performances, goals unattained and coaches dismissed, the Independence Bowl is a bittersweet reward for a season’s efforts, but the players are doing their best to remember it is, indeed, a reward.
“It’s kind of hard, but we’re just blessed to be in a bowl game,” safety Reshad Jones said. “We’re going to make the best out of it. We’re excited to go. We know we didn’t have the season we wanted to have and win as many games as we wanted to win, but we’re blessed, and it’s good to be eligible to play in a bowl.”
Shreveport is a long way from the national championship game – both in literal and figurative terms – and even the Sugar Bow, just three hours to the southeast, seems like a dim memory of preseason dreams that never came close to being realized.
But for all Shreveport lacks, it still represents a final time for Georgia’s seniors to take the field together, another tune-up for the underclassmen hoping to make keep momentum going into the spring and an opportunity to for the Bulldogs to make amends for some of this year’s shortcomings.
No, Shreveport wasn’t the preferred destination for Georgia, but as cornerback Branden Smith said, the Bulldogs did little this season to earn the privilege of dictating their postseason home.
“We’re not going to be greedy or anything,” Smith said. “A bowl is better than no bowl. We got invited to Shreveport, and I’m very happy to be playing my first bowl in Shreverport.”
Of course, there is something of a stigma to playing in the city in Northwest Louisiana. Shreveport, for all its potential charm, remains a mystery for most of the Bulldogs, many of whom said they had to Google information it just to learn where it was located.
“All I’ve heard is that it’s cold and urban,” linebacker Darryl Gamble said. “It’s not like the ones I’ve been to in the past.”
While the Bulldogs haven’t been to Shreveport since 1991, their recent bowl history has included a few more upper-echelon destinations in a few more tourist-friendly places – including two Sugar Bowl appearances since 2006, a trip close to home in the Chick-fil-A Bowl and last year’s Capital One Bowl game when players were treated to trips to Disney World and Universal Studios as part of the pregame festivities.
“My first bowl was last year in Orlando and it probably doesn’t get any better than that for a bowl game and the things around it,” cornerback Brandon Boykin said. “But we’re not going there for the attractions. We’re going down there to play the game, and I don’t care where we go as long as we get the victory.”
Despite all the distractions and disappointments, winning is what it’s still all about, Smith said. The general consensus may be that Georgia is playing in a lower-tier bowl – a message supported by lackluster ticket sales among Bulldogs fans for the game – and enthusiasm won’t be high among the players, Smith said he thinks there is still plenty of motivation among the players.
“We have a lot of motivation to play hard,” Smith said. “We’re going to give it our all, study, look at film and listen to our coaches, and hopefully we’ll bring a win back to Athens.”
For one, Georgia hopes to end on a high note. After a year filled with so much heartbreak, the Bulldogs are desperate to have some goodwill accumulated for what will almost certainly be an offseason filled with questions.
More importantly, however, Georgia’s players want to win one for their former coaches. Three defensive coaches, including coordinator Willie Martinez, were dismissed earlier this month, a drastic change that could have dampened spirits. Instead, Gamble said, the players have rallied around the adversity and the attitude at practice has remained upbeat.
“It hasn’t been negative at all,” Gamble said. “It’s just been going with the flow. We’re still having a little fun.”
Head coach Mark Richt said there have been a few sluggish moments as the Bulldogs prepared for their trip to Shreveport, but overall it has been a solid two weeks of warm-ups for the game.
Finding reasons to be excited about a bowl game that offers little in the way of box-office cache might have been difficult, Boykin said, but instead Georgia has taken all of those setbacks along the way and used them as motivation to put together one final impressive encore.
“With all the things that have happened and the adversity, I think we just want to go out and prove that we can still win and we’re still a good team, and we won’t let us effect us,” Boykin said. “I feel like that would be an accomplishment for the players.”