ATLANTA — Mark Richt didn’t know what to say.
His Georgia Bulldogs team had just been ground into road kill 35-7 at South Carolina the night of Oct. 6, a loss symbolic of the kind of disappointment and unfulfilled expectations that have become as much a part of Georgia’s brand as its trademark silver pants.
As he trudged past the stands at Williams-Brice Stadium still swarming with giddy Gamecocks fans, Richt found his voice.
“The bad news is we got whipped pretty soundly,” Richt said. “The good news is, we got whipped together.
“It was not a situation where the offense played good and the defense played bad or vice versa, or the special teams blew it or the coaching staff made a bunch of mistakes. It was a little bit everybody. We all had some ownership in that.”
Shawn Williams did know what to say two weeks later. The Monday after a tepid 29-24 win at lowly Kentucky, the Bulldogs’ senior safety called out his defensive teammates for being soft and his coaches for playing the wrong players, ones not giving enough effort.
Richt, who rarely blows his stack like Mount Saban or veers into a four-part variety show like Les Miles after beating Ole Miss, took Williams’ rant with all the aplomb of a test pilot facing a control panel full of flashing red warning lights.
“When I heard it, I wasn’t really that mad,” Richt said. “I kind of grinned because I knew something was about to give here. I think some of the guys got their feelings hurt and some guys got mad. But I think everybody understood that Shawn’s heart was he wants us to play better. He wants us to win.”
Still, to all the world outside the Georgia program, it looked like Richt’s program was unraveling. The 12th-year Georgia coach himself has often been portrayed as too soft, especially compared to the harsh glare of his opponent in Saturday’s Southeastern Conference Championship Game, Alabama’s Nick Saban.
But this midseason crisis wasn’t the first time Richt and his Bulldogs have been counted out.
Just two years ago, they finished 6-7 after a disheartening 10-6 Liberty Bowl loss to Central Florida. Last season, the Bulldogs started 0-2 with losses to Boise State and South Carolina, and were once again counted out of the SEC East race. Georgia proceeded to reel off 10 straight wins and led LSU 10-0 in the first half of the SEC Championship Game before being buried under a Tyrann Mathieu-inspired avalanche 42-10.
Mathieu is going to the NFL. LSU is home awaiting its bowl destination.
But Georgia is back.
No, the Bulldogs didn’t have to face LSU, Alabama or Texas A&M in the regular season, but they won the games they needed to win. They handed Florida its only defeat 17-9 and have since been playing dominant football, beating Ole Miss, Auburn, Georgia Southern and Georgia Tech by a combined average score of 41-9.
They’re being counted out again. The smart money says to bet on Alabama’s big-game success and its coach.
But there’s something to be said for the guy, the team, that doesn’t know enough to stay beaten. That doesn’t realize it isn’t following the script. Georgia is talented enough to make it all the way to face Notre Dame for the BCS title.
We’ll see what words Richt and Williams have if that comes to pass.