With coach Mark Richt changing his mild-mannered ways, Georgia has responded with five straight victories
THE BIG question in Athens these days is about Georgia coach Mark Richt's midseason personality makeover. Have the Bulldogs (9--2) reeled off five straight wins and climbed to No. 7 in the BCS rankings simply because their otherwise mild-mannered leader has fired them up with a batch of hoary motivational tricks? In a 42--30 upset of Florida on Oct. 27 he told his players to draw a penalty for excessive celebration after their first touchdown. (The overzealous Dawgs emptied their bench and dashed to the end zone, drawing two flags.) Two weeks later Richt broke out black jerseys in a 45--20 home victory over Auburn. And in a 24--13 win over Kentucky last Saturday he frequently waved his arms at the Sanford Stadium crowd, exhorting the 92,746 fans to make noise for the Georgia defense. Suddenly, the Bulldogs have a new face, and it's no longer that of a cigar-store Indian. "Energy has changed this team," says Richt.
Change was in order after a 35--14 loss at Tennessee on Oct. 6, a defeat that dropped the Bulldogs to 4--2 and knocked them out of the Top 20. That's when Richt took a second look at his young team—just 10 starters returned this season—and decided he needed to change his approach. He'd turned over the play-calling duties to offensive coordinator Mike Bobo at the end of 2006 and had spent his free time in the off-season meeting with every player on the roster. So when Richt decided to start playing to the Bulldogs' emotions, he knew just how to do it. "He gets ripped for being so boring, but he has a great feel for his players because he talks to every one of them," says defensive coordinator Willie Martinez, who has been on the Georgia staff since Richt took over in 2001. "Shoot, he's the same guy. But bottom line: It's a game, and you have to motivate kids."
Richt's out-of-character ploys have created an atmosphere in which playmakers have been allowed to shine. Standouts have emerged on both sides of the ball (notably sophomore quarterback Matthew Stafford), but none have had more impact than physical tailback Knowshon Moreno, who has been the Dawgs' best player during their winning streak. Last Saturday, the 5'11", 207-pound redshirt freshman from Belford, N.J., burned the Wildcats for 124 rushing yards and a touchdown. It was Moreno's fifth straight game with more than 100 yards on the ground, making him the first Bulldog to accomplish that feat since Herschel Walker did it in 1982.
But there is a chance all these good vibes will go for naught as far as the BCS is concerned. Tennessee holds the tiebreaker over Georgia in the SEC East, meaning that unless Kentucky beats the Vols in Lexington this Saturday, Richt's team might have to settle for a second-tier bowl appearance. It would be a bittersweet end to his finest year as a coach. But if nothing else, the pieces will be in place for next year and beyond.
ONLY AT SI.COM News and analysis from Stewart Mandel.
Three and Out
1 Michigan fans pining for alum Les Miles to succeed the retiring Lloyd Carr had best hope LSU loses one of its last two games. Though Miles is believed to covet the job, it's unlikely he would accept it while his Tigers are contending for the national title, which won't be decided until Jan. 7.
2 Here's hoping the nation's 925 Heisman voters don't accept the notion that underclassmen are unworthy of the award. Florida sophomore Tim Tebow is the first player to throw and rush for 20 touchdowns in the same season.
3 BYU (8--2) and Utah (8--3) head into their annual showdown this Saturday each having won seven straight games. The No. 23 Cougars have already clinched a share of the Mountain West title, but the Utes could snap their rival's 14-game conference winning streak.
COMING ON Moreno has run for 1,228 yards, while Richt (below) has led the cheers.
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