ATHENS — Joe Cox was walking through campus Monday when someone informed him of the SEC’s announcement that the excessive celebration penalty on A.J. Green last week was a mistake. It was like salt in the wound.
Georgia was just 69 seconds away from taking down the No. 4 team in the country, but instead, the Bulldogs spent the next few days with the lingering thought of what might have been. The admission, two days too late, was little consolation.
“We’re not blaming anything on a flag, but it is something that the more everybody talked about it, the more we were like, yeah, he shouldn’t have thrown that,” Cox said. “But the bottom line is, they outlasted us in a tough, close ballgame.”
The admission by the SEC on Monday was just another reminder of how close Georgia was to earning a crucial win over a top-five team, but reminders were everywhere as the players watched the film of last week’s loss to LSU.
The offense was a disaster in the first half. Blair Walsh missed his first kick of the season. The flag against Green changed the dynamics of the final minute of action. The kickoff coverage was a letdown. The defense on LSU’s final drive hardly matched the dominant front Georgia had demonstrated throughout the game.
There were so many “what if?” moments, it was hard to change the topic of conversation, Cox said. But as the Bulldogs returned to practice Tuesday, putting the loss to LSU behind them quickly became a top priority.
“You can’t help but think about (the loss) when you get back to the locker room,” Cox said. “But the next day, you’ve got to get it out of your head and move on to the next opponent. That’s what you’ve got to say, worry about moving on and getting ready for the next game. I think we’ve done a good job of that.”
As difficult as it was to forget about last week, this week’s opponent served as the perfect reminder of how important focus and intensity are to winning games in the SEC.
Georgia’s last trip to Neyland Stadium resulted in a 35-14 loss to an unranked Tennessee team in a game in which the Bulldogs appeared utterly unprepared for battle. The Volunteers led 28-0 at the half, outgaining Georgia by 232 yards in the first two quarters alone.
“I do remember that game distinctly,” head coach Mark Richt said. “If you talk about 60 minutes of football, I don’t think there was any game that felt more empty than that day.”
As it turned out, the letdown against Tennessee proved to be a spark in the long run for Georgia, which won the remainder of its games, culminating with a blowout win over Hawaii in the Sugar Bowl.
Last week’s loss to LSU wasn’t the same flat performance. In many ways it was worse. Georgia had taken a 13-12 lead with 1:09 to play, but had its hopes dashed just 23 seconds later. But Richt said the preparations for this week’s game won’t change much based on the team’s emotional state.
“I’m more worried about, ‘are we going to get the work done?’” Richt said. “I really don’t care what mood they are in, to be honest with you. But as you get closer and closer to the game and as we taper down on the physical aspect of the practices, it becomes much more mental and psychological. When it comes to the kind of energy and spirit they bring to the game, you worry about that a little bit closer to gametime.”
Linebacker Rennie Curran said he’s not waiting that long to get his teammates focused on the potential that lies ahead rather than what could have happened should things have gone differently a few days ago.
Putting an emotional loss behind them won’t be an easy task, he said, but the Bulldogs will have much more to worry about if last week’s defeat breeds a second straight embarrassing performance at Neyland Stadium.
“It’s not an easy task to turn that off because you sit there and you watch the film and you see how close you were to making that play that would have helped you win the game,” Curran said.
“But at the same time, we see the task ahead of us, and we can’t sit there and dwell on the mistakes and have that ultimately make us lose another game. We’ve got to stay positive no matter what because each week is going to be a war, and nobody’s going to feel sorry for us.”