ATLANTA - With kickoff for the SEC Championship now mere hours away, Georgia head coach Mark Richt took some time to reflect on what got his third-ranked Bulldogs to this point during a final press conference Friday at the Georgia Dome.
It's certainly been an interesting - at times nerve-wracking - ride.
After losing 35-7 to South Carolina, the chances for a Bulldog successful bounceback seemed about as likely as a July snowstorm in Watkinsville, before a few well-timed words from senior safety Shawn Williams after a lackluster 29-24 victory over Kentucky helped refocus the squad to the point where it now sits on the threshold of college football's Holy Grail - the BCS Championship game.
"I'm not going to minimize Shawn Williams' comment going public, questioning the manhood of our team and the defense, calling everybody soft," Richt said during a 30-minute session Friday. "Those things happen in closed-door meetings, but he put it right out in front of the whole world to hear with our media."
Williams' ploy had exactly the effect he had hoped.
A fired-up Bulldog squad played their most physical game of the year, defeating second-ranked Florida 17-9.
Georgia was just getting started.
Following wins over Ole Miss and Auburn, Georgia earned its second-straight trip back to the Georgia Dome and Saturday at 4 p.m. get their shot at defending national championship Alabama with an SEC championship and a trip to Miami to face Notre Dame on the line.
"When I heard it (what Williams said), I wasn't really that mad. I kind of grinned because I knew something was about to give here," Richt said. "I think some guys got their feelings hurt and some guys got mad, but I think everybody understood Shawn's heart and that he wanted everybody to play better."
So far, that's just what the Bulldogs have done.
"Shawn didn't come back to Georgia for his senior year for that type of performance, especially on the defensive side of the ball so I do think that was a catalyst and it came at a moment of truth. It was more about our manhood than it was about us beating Florida," Richt said. "It was just a bunch of guys who were asked are we tough enough physically, or are we soft? That became the challenge and the war cry for that week and as it turned out we played a very physical game. I think that helped us get going defensively."
Next up, a date with Alabama of head coach Nick Saban, who Friday acknowledged he wasn't sure how his young team would respond.
Obviously, he hasn't had much to complain about.
"In my mind, even though there was high expectations and high rankings going in, it was going to be a real critical factor for this team to have young players whose role was going to change from the year before; to be able to change those roles effectively, regardless whether it was a leadership role, a new position, a new player who had less experience," Saban said. "And I think that the thing that has been most pleasing is the way this team has bought into the principles and values of being a good team, being positive, affecting each other with positive energy and attitude, being responsible for their own self determination in terms of doing their job on a consistent basis and really working hard as a team."
But while Saban is shooting for his third national title during his tenure in Tuscaloosa, Richt is hoping to get his first shot at the big ring in 12 years as the Bulldog coach.
"We definitely wanted to play for a national championship here at Georgia. As you said, it hasn't happened yet and we do have that opportunity," Richt said. "I guess this is as close as we've actually gotten this deep into the season but I don't want to minimize the importance of the SEC championship. But knowing that the winner will likely play Notre Dame for the national championship, it does add a lot of juice to this game."
Although it was Friday, the atmosphere around the Georgia Dome was already buzzing as Bulldog fans descended in drove into downtown Atlanta, hoping to witness a little Bulldog history against the mighty Crimson Tide.
"Certainly our fans are excited about, our players are excited about and to an extent our coaches are excited about it, but our goal has been to on a daily basis be staying humble, stay focused on today, focus on what we can do today to get better," Richt said. "Throughout the year our goal was to get back to Atlanta. We wanted to come back and we wanted to have a better showing than we did a year ago."
Last year's game with LSU was one the Bulldogs would just as soon forget.
After leading the Tigers 10-7 at the half, LSU came back to roll the Bulldogs 42-10. However, despite the loss, Richt is hopeful the experience of now knowing what it's like to compete in this atmosphere will pay off Saturday afternoon.
"I don't know if it will be an advantage over Alabama but it's good to have guys with experience of having been here before and knowing a little bit what it's about and understand that it takes a lot more about being excited to play it," Richt said. "It takes more than that, so hopefully that will help us."
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