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(Curtis Compton/ccompton@ajc.com)
A crush of reporters greets Sony Michel and Georgia's other three captains as they conduct interviews in front of the Radiator Springs Racers ride at Disney's California Adventure.

Bulldogs balancing having fun with getting ready to win at Rose Bowl

Chip Towers

ANAHEIM, Calif. – Georgia head coach Kirby Smart admits to saying it. Said it clear as day. Said it back in Athens before the Bulldogs arrived here in the Golden State for the Rose Bowl.

“We’re not going there to ride rides.”

So, of course, on their first full day in California, the Bulldogs were riding rides.

Specifically, they were at Disney’s “California Adventure” amusement park.  The Tournament of Roses, which organizes this rather grand and historic bowl game, sent both the Georgia Bulldogs and the Oklahoma Sooners out to the park as its guests on Wednesday. Their cost for admission was a pomp-and-circumstance laden welcoming ceremony hosted by ESPN’s Marcellus Wiley in the middle of the park.

That was followed by a round of “break-out interviews” with media members on the other side of the park. They were conducted with players and coaches sitting in director chairs in front of the Radiator Springs Racers roller coaster. Screams of park visitors flying by riding in Speedy McQueen car served as a noisy backdrop for the sound bytes.

Smart had a good attitude about the irony of the moment, given his previous remarks.

“Yeah, that’s what I said,” Smart said with a laugh. “That’s the big challenge, balancing having a good time with getting prepared. I’ve had some good experiences trying to do that and I’ve had some tough experiences trying to do it. But I think if you explain that to your leadership, and they understand that there’s a time for fun and there’s a time for play and a time for practice and focus. As long as you can separate that and you’ve got a senior-laden team, you can use that to your advantage.”

And it wasn’t all play for the Bulldogs on Wednesday. The team practiced Wednesday morning at the StubHub Center, the home of the Los Angeles Chargers. That was after having meetings first thing at the team hotel, the InterContinental Downtown.

Apparently, it wasn’t a walk-through/go-through-the-motions practice either.

“We were just getting after it (Wednesday),” senior tailback Sony Michel said. “We were getting back in that groove. We were going at it (Wednesday), getting ready for battle.”

So, they got their work in before their play on Wednesday, and the ratio of each, work and play, will shift to more of the former and less of the latter in the five days leading up to Monday’s kickoff.

But on day one, the Bulldogs didn’t mind having some fun. And that started with an exclusive ride on California Adventures Guardians of the Galaxy ride. It’s a contained roller-coaster-type ride that featured an “accelerated drop tower.”

Georgia’s Butkus Award-winning linebacker Roquan Smith rode it with his head coach.

“He about broke my arm,” Smart said of Smith’s death grip on his forearm. “He was holding onto me a little tight. I’m not ready to play anymore, I can tell you that. I feel sorry for the running backs.”

Said Smith, “It was pretty good besides my stomach dropping out. I haven’t ridden a ride like that in a while.”

For the record, Michel skipped that ride. In fact, he hadn’t ridden any at the time of his interview, which was toward the end of the Bulldogs’ visit.

“I’m gonna ride some,” he said. “I just didn’t get on that first one. That was too crazy for me.”

But all the players seemed to be having a good time. Even before getting a free reign of Disneyland, they have been experiencing things that remind them that the “Granddaddy of Them All” is no ordinary bowl.

It started with Tuesday’s flight to Los Angeles, which was on a charter Delta jet outfitted with personal “pods” for the players to lay back in and watch videos — and sleep. The Hotel Intercontinental is posh digs. The Chargers’ facility is considered top-of-the-line in the NFL.

So, the Bulldogs are taking it all in and trying to enjoy the moment as much as they can. It’s the time away from official Rose Bowl activities that they’re trying to monitor.

“The events that the Rose Bowl provides for us, we’re going to take advantage of them and that moment,” Michel said. “We talk about not having too much fun, but that’s the extracurricular activities, like going out after we do these bowl game activities. The main focus is the game, but these adventures they put on for us, we’re going to take advantage of them and have fun. It’s about keeping that balance.”

Said Smith, “We’ve just got to keep the main thing the main thing. All the glitz and glamour about L.A. and what-not, we can’t let that get into our heads. We just have to focus on what we have to do to play our best. Whatever that takes we’re willing to do.”

Smart came here to the Rose Bowl with Alabama in January of 2010 (at the end of the 2009 season) and has participated in numerous high-stakes bowl games through the years. He’s comfortable with the notion that the Bulldogs are doing everything they need to do to get ready for the game while also having a good time.

“I don’t think it will affect our game at all,” he said. “I think our players are enjoying it. It’s a great honor to be here and it’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.”