ATHENS -- Two years ago, it was all anybody around the Georgia football team could talk about. The entire offseason was built around it, an energy infusion every time the words Boise State or Georgia Dome were mentioned.
The results were not good.
Two years later, Georgia, now ranked No. 5 in the country, faces nearly the exact scenario: a high-profile opener away from home, this time at No. 8 Clemson. And just like two years ago, it’s followed by a home showdown with division rival South Carolina.
This time, there is a more subdued attitude.
“I think people are putting a lot more hype into it than we are,” senior tight end Arthur Lynch said. “We realize, for one, it’s a non-conference game. I know there’s a lot riding on it from a national standpoint. But I don’t think we’re trying to put too much pressure on it, like the idea that, ‘Oh my God this is the make-or-break game.’ ”
Senior defensive end Garrison Smith put it another way.
“We know what to expect now,” he said.
Two years ago, Georgia was coming off a 6-7 season, and no player on the roster had any memory of playing in an SEC championship game. Only a few had memories of being in the Sugar Bowl after the 2007 season. So when head coach Mark Richt told the players, just before the end of the 2010 season, they’d be playing in the Dome against Boise State, the players erupted in cheers.
During the ensuing offseason, players and coaches said some of the same things they’re saying now, about having to be in midseason form right away.
The difference, players say now, is there is a different feel around the program. Many say they have been steeled mentally by more high-profile games, most notably the past two SEC championship games but also two bowl games and two wins over arch-rival Florida.
“That year we played Boise I feel like we kind of shorted ourselves,” junior receiver Michael Bennett said. “We just wanted to get to the Dome. We just wanted to get to the SEC championship. Whereas now we want to go to the natty; we want to do it all.”
Still, opinions vary on whether the approach was wrong two years ago -- and thus has been corrected -- or the real problem was just execution.
Many players have said the team was over-excited heading into the Boise State game, and a more even-keel approach would have served the team better.
“There was a little bit of a lack of confidence in ourselves in 2011,” Lynch said. “We knew the talent we had, but we didn’t know how to win, if that makes sense.”
Indeed, that 2011 Georgia team would have 16 players drafted by the NFL during the next two years, and that doesn’t include the players still around, most notably quarterback Aaron Murray receiver Malcolm Mitchell and Lynch.
It was a talented team but one that during the previous two seasons had combined to go 14-12.
“A lot of those guys from ’05, ’06, ’08, those guys were gone,” Lynch said. “So we didn’t really know how to approach how to really win ballgames.”
Then, as Lynch points out, the team rebounded a week later with a strong performance against South Carolina, albeit in a losing effort. It was still a confidence booster, and when Georgia beat Florida, ending a three-game losing streak to its rival, it was another boost.
“That’s why I think last year we had a very good year, because we knew what it took,” Lynch said. “Now we’ve had two years of that under our belts. With two big games ahead we know what it takes to play in a big game like this. We’ve done it against Florida the past two times.”
Richt doesn’t necessarily disagree with that. In fact, he points to experience of a different kind as a factor.
“I don’t know how many Boise State seniors they had, but they had something like an unbelievable amount of three-year starters on that team,” Richt said. “It was a big game to them, but it wasn’t that big of a game to them. It might’ve been bigger to some of our young players.”
In the end, however, the Georgia coaches place the blame on the 35-21 loss on simple execution.
“I just think they lined up and whipped us, really,” Richt said. “Whether we were hyped or not hyped, they just lined up and beat us. They were better than us that day in just about every phase.”
Offensive coordinator Mike Bobo also scoffed a bit at hindsight thinking on the Boise game.
“After the fact, I think maybe we were a little too excited,” Bobo said. “But we just didn’t play well in that game. There were a lot of reasons for it. On offense, you’ve got to kind of have an even keel. It’s OK to get excited, but you’ve got to execute. They’re going to be excited for this game when it gets here next Saturday and they walk in that stadium. We’ve got to handle our emotions playing on the road and playing in a big game.”
Bobo points out that the offense was working in a lot of new players when the 2011 season kicked off. The tailbacks and offensive line had experienced almost complete turnover, and Murray was learning how to deal with not having Green on the outside. The defense was much more experienced, but Jarvis Jones was playing his first game in a Georgia uniform.
So as Georgia casts an eye at this mammoth opener and hopes for a reason this will be different, perhaps experience and perspective are the keys. The offense returns 10 starters. The defense is young but hungry. And rather than coming off a 6-7 season, seeking something to prove to the nation, this Georgia team is coming off a 12-2 season and just seeking to survive and advance.
“That’s where it is, our confidence level,” Lynch said. “We can’t get ahead of ourselves, but I think we know what it takes to win a big game now.”