TAMPA, Fla. -- On the first day of 2011, several members of the Georgia football team gathered in Athens to discuss the future of the program. They had just lost in embarrassing fashion, finishing a losing season with a bad loss.
“Hey, something’s gotta change,” said center Ben Jones, describing the tenor of the meeting. “As the seniors, we sat there and said, ‘What can we do to win this year?’ ”
The result was the turnaround year -- from 6-7 to 10-3 (entering Monday’s Outback Bowl) that the program needed. Head coach Mark Richt began the year with his job in jeopardy and finished it set to receive a contract extension.
But there’s another way to look at 2011 -- as a transition year. Those around the program see reasons that the year that just ended will prove not just to be a job-saving year, but will be the start of an upward trajectory.
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“The past couple years we definitely regressed a little bit, I guess, when it comes to Georgia football,” quarterback Aaron Murray said. “And I think this year we took a few steps forward, really changed a lot of opinions on what people had about our program, our toughness and what we’re capable of doing.
“I think people are now starting to think about Georgia as a real contender, especially with how young we are. We’re gonna be a team to be reckoned with.”
The reasons for the turnaround are well-chronicled: the so-called “Dream Team” recruiting class that signed in February, improved team chemistry and general improvement from the defense in the second year of a 3-4 system.
All of those factors don’t have to be one-year improvements.
“We’ve got a lot left,” defensive coordinator Todd Grantham said.
It starts with players. Murray is only a sophomore. While key seniors are leaving, none of them by themselves are responsible for the turnaround0.
Last year’s recruiting class largely lived up to its billing. Tailback Isaiah Crowell had some off-field issues and injury trouble, but he was also the SEC freshman of the year. Nose tackle John Jenkins helped make the defense stout against the run. Receiver Malcolm Mitchell was perhaps the best playmaker on offense.
That doesn’t even account for linebacker Jarvis Jones, who sat out last year after transferring and this year became a consensus All-American.
But the improvement may go back to that meeting on Jan. 1, 2011, among Ben Jones, cornerback Brandon Boykin and others who would be seniors on this year’s team. Players and coaches often claim that team chemistry is better than the previous year, but after the departures of many players from the 2010 team, including some who were pushed out, the locker room chemistry did seem improved.
Richt, wrapping up his 11th season at Georgia, called this year’s team one of his favorites, including his time as an assistant at Florida State. He compared the 2011 Bulldogs to his 2002 team, which went 13-1 and won the SEC championship and Sugar Bowl.
“You had some really great seniors that year that really bought into the way we were doing it, and this group did the same thing,” Richt said. “There’s a few guys that certainly could’ve gone pro and said, I’m not gonna deal with this mess. But they stayed, and they believed. I thought that was a very positive sign when your Boykins and your (Cordy) Glenns and Ben Jones, the guys that ended up sticking around and believed and led.
“But we also decided as a staff that we were gonna take a big-time positive approach to the season, and we knew all the negativity that was swirling around, and we knew that we had to make our Butts-Mehre Building a place where they could show up and feel good. That was a big part of the approach, and I think it helped out a lot.”
Boykin, Glenn and Ben Jones are seniors who are leaving. But Boykin, in citing his optimism for the program he’s leaving behind, cited leadership and commitment behind the scenes.
“Us winning 10 games this year gave people in our program a lot of confidence that we could do it again,” Boykin said. “Especially with the schedule that we’ve got that people probably consider easy, for an SEC schedule not having to play some of the teams like Alabama, LSU. There’s a great chance for us to be able to go back to Atlanta and play for an SEC championship and maybe even a national championship.”