Ten years ago, Georgia approached the coming season much like now, with two talented tailbacks and a highly-touted true sophomore quarterback who fans hoped would show significant improvement over his up-and-down freshman performance.
The resulting campaign for Knowshon Moreno, Thomas Brown, Matthew Stafford and Co. — part of what’s been called college football’s craziest season ever — is a favorite of many Dawgs fans, particularly those who were in college at the time. And that’s despite the only trophy from that year at Butts-Mehre being for a Sugar Bowl win.
Mention 2007 to UGA fans, and it conjures up quite a few fond memories:
The debut of Moreno in the opening win over Oklahoma State. The Cowpokes had the national media buzz, but Georgia won 35-14, with a third-string tailback from New Jersey instantly winning the hearts of Bulldog Nation as he bounced up from tackles and sprinted back to the huddle. …
The “one and done” victory over Nick Saban and the Crimson Tide in Tuscaloosa, as Stafford threw to Mikey Henderson in the left corner of the end zone on Georgia’s first play of overtime. …
The dancing celebration in the end zone in Jacksonville is most Dawgs fans’ favorite Georgia-Florida game from the past couple of decades. Moreno ran for 188 yards and 3 touchdowns and Stafford connected with Mohamed Massaquoi on a beautiful 84-yard strike as the Gators went down, despite having that year’s Heisman winner in Tim Tebow.
The original Blackout against Auburn turning into one of the greatest and loudest home games in Sanford Stadium history, with Georgia scoring 28 unanswered points to take the lead and the win, and Moreno and his teammates capturing the imagination of Verne Lundquist, Gary Danielson and a national viewing audience as they danced to Soulja Boy.
My son, who was in his first year of grad school at UGA, recalls it as “probably the most fun season we’ve had outside of maybe 2002, and even then it was wilder. The Blackout is probably the single most fun home game, and the most distinctive, as it broke with tradition, but in a great way. The Florida game was not hanging on for dear life against a bad Florida team (like most of our wins) but was going blow for blow with a team that had that year’s Heisman winner. We also won in overtime in Tuscaloosa, and destroyed Hawaii.”
Georgia got off to a slow start that season, losing twice in the first six games, and was down 10 at halftime at Vanderbilt before turning that game around, running off seven straight wins and rediscovering the fun in football. And, Stafford indeed made the sort of big second-year leap that folks are hoping Jacob Eason will make after having a less horrible freshman year than Stafford did.
If only perennial Dawgs nemesis Steve Spurrier and his Gamecocks hadn’t pulled off a 16-12 squeaker in Athens early in that season, we might have seen Mark Richt get his shot at bringing a national championship back to Athens.
Instead, it was probably the most Richt-ian of seasons, a frustrating affair that saw a talented team have many wow moments, but also lose two conference games (including a Knoxville beatdown in which the Dawgs looked unmotivated and unprepared).
And, yet, in a season where the eventual national champion (LSU) had two losses, Georgia still nearly managed a chance to do likewise, with only a loss by Tennessee needed as the season wound down for the Dawgs to move on to the Dome. Instead, the Vols fought back from a 15-point deficit to beat Vanderbilt 25-24 and topped a surprisingly strong Kentucky squad 52-50 in a five-hour quadruple-overtime affair.
Georgia and Tennessee wound up tied for the SEC East lead, with the Vols going to Atlanta because their win over the Dawgs gave them the tiebreaker.
So close. And yet, even though Georgia wasn’t in the SEC Championship Game, the regular season ended with the Dawgs ranked ahead of both LSU and Tennessee, the teams that battled it out in the Dome. And, this was a mere seven weeks after Georgia had been given up for dead by most sports pundits, and many fans had been lamenting the prospect of a “lost” season and a date in the Music City Bowl at best.
Georgia finished that wild season as probably the nation’s hottest team, ranking No. 2 in the final Associated Press poll, setting it up to enter 2008 as the preseason No. 1, returning 16 of the 22 starters from 2007.
Unfortunately, Richt and his program couldn’t sustain the momentum the next year, partly because of injuries, weak offensive line play (a common refrain in any litany of Georgia football woes), poor defensive coaching, and recruiting weaknesses in key areas.
So, despite the Gator Stomp and the Blackout win, the Dawgs didn’t wind up changing the dynamic with Florida, and they punted on the black jerseys after a humiliating loss in Athens to the Crimson Tide. Since then, Georgia hasn’t beaten Bama or been to a major bowl.
What lessons or ideas could Kirby Smart and his coaches hopefully take from the way things transpired back then for Richt and his staff? What could they maybe replicate from 2007 and perhaps improve on?
Regaining the confidence or swagger that the Dawgs showed in the second half of the 2007 season would be big step forward for the program. Georgia showed no fear in Jacksonville that year against a very good Florida team.
Also, find a way to generate the excitement and incredible energy produced that year, whether it’s the occasional alternate jersey, a team song or anything that gets the fan base involved and invested. The 2017 home schedule is awful, but making Athens a more consistently difficult and louder place to play for opponents would be a long-term win.
On the field, the key is in the trenches. Richt tended to recruit well at skill positions and let the big uglies slide. The offensive and defensive fronts are where championships are won. That 2007 team took half a season to get rolling, but, by the time they faced Colt Brennan and the high-powered Rainbow Warriors offense in the bowl game, Georgia’s defensive front was unstoppable.
And, one of the biggest reasons Richt couldn’t sustain the momentum of 2007 was a stubborn resistance to acknowledging and fixing a bad hire as one of his coordinators (Willie Martinez).
So, the lessons Smart can take from that time: Hire the right assistants and don’t be afraid to make a change when needed (the verdict is still out on that one); recruit deeply and reload continuously at every position (Smart seems to understand this); and find a team identity that gives your players not just swagger, but the knowledge that they have the talent to beat anyone anywhere.
Recapture that, and Smart ought to produce another host of memories that fans will be savoring a decade from now.