ATHENS, Ga. -- If there was a common thread between Georgia’s season-opening wins in Mark Richt’s first eight seasons as the Bulldogs’ coach, he fails to pinpoint it today.
“If there is a secret, we had forgotten it,” Richt chuckled recently.
“I’ll have to remember to look at my notes and see if I forgot something. I don’t know. If we were 13-0 in opening games, I might be able to make a comment on that, but I can’t say we’re great in openers, considering probably the last couple years we haven’t [played well].”
It’s not as if Richt has a substandard history in openers. The Bulldogs are 10-2 in the first game during his tenure, but recent history has not been so kind. After the 8-0 start -- which included wins against Saturday’s opening opponent, Clemson (in 2002 and 2003), plus Boise State and Oklahoma State -- between 2001-08, the Bulldogs have posted a 2-2 record in the last four openers.
They dropped both games against BCS-conference opposition -- in 2009 at Oklahoma State and in 2011 against Boise State in Atlanta -- so the fifth-ranked Bulldogs’ visit to No. 8 Clemson provides an opportunity to halt that trend.
Not that it will be easy. Because of the uncertainty that naturally accompanies a nine-month layoff, openers against large-conference opponents rarely develop into a cakewalk.
“I always call it an adventure into the unknown,” said former Bulldogs coach Vince Dooley, who went 18-5-2 in openers at Georgia. “You really don’t know. First ballgames are so unpredictable.”
And his longtime rival at Clemson, Danny Ford, agreed.
“You don’t ever know, because it’s your first football game,” Ford said. “If it was the fourth game or third game and you had a chance to evaluate them on film -- even though you’ve got film of last year, it’s not the same football team. You really don’t ever know until the first football game how your team’s going to play, much less how your opponent’s going to play.”
Various Georgia players have blamed the 2009 Oklahoma State or 2011 Boise State losses on overexcitement or distraction in reflecting back on those seasons. The simple truth, however, is that Georgia faced good teams those days.
Oklahoma State jumped to fifth in the polls after beating Georgia in 2009 and hovered around the top 20 all season before a late slide caused the Cowboys to finish the season 9-4 and unranked. That Georgia team never found a consistent stride and finished 8-5 and also unranked.
With a veteran-heavy lineup that included fourth-year starter Kellen Moore at quarterback, Boise State lost just once in 2011 and finished eighth in the final Associated Press top 25 and sixth in the coaches’ poll. The Georgia team that dropped that opener was coming off a 6-7 season -- the only losing campaign in Richt’s career -- and lost again the following week to South Carolina before launching a 10-game winning streak to claim the first of back-to-back SEC East titles.
“I think that game ended up with a lack of execution,” Georgia cornerback Damian Swann said. “It was kind of guys still learning the system, guys not knowing where to be on certain plays and with the experienced quarterback like that, you can’t have those mistakes.
“You can’t have those plays where guys are out of position and guys not being where they’re supposed to be, because three plays is 21 points, and now you’re down. So it’s one of those things where you’ve got to know what’s going on right out the gates.”
Put more simply, Richt said, “I just think they lined up and whipped us, really, 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.”
The 10-game winning streak that followed the early failure in 2011 is an important sign of what has changed at Georgia, fifth-year senior offensive guard Chris Burnette said. The residual disappointment that followed the 2010 season forced players to look themselves in the mirror and make their offseasons more productive.
“We don’t go 6-7 at Georgia often,” Burnette said. “It kind of forced us to go like, ‘Man, something’s wrong here. We need to change something.’ I think that was a big key for us.”
If that sounds like offseason happy talk, perhaps there is some of that element in play. But the Bulldogs can easily point to their recent record as evidence of a change. They are 22-4 since that 0-2 start in 2011 and nearly played for the BCS championship last season.
Further, quarterback Aaron Murray regularly makes a point to mention this summer’s participation in voluntary workouts was the highest it has been since he arrived in 2009. He and the other veterans believe the daunting schedule that awaits them this season -- “I think guys realize that we’ve got to be in midseason form come this Saturday,” Murray said -- was one of the motivating factors in that improved offseason attendance.
In fact, that preparation and their experience in previous opening disappointments, might even benefit the Bulldogs come Saturday.
“We didn’t handle the environment well [against Boise State], but it was a growing experience and a lot of those guys that were on that team now are able to pull from that and know what it takes,” Georgia offensive coordinator Mike Bobo said. “I think it’s going to be beneficial for us going into that game. It’s definitely been beneficial in the preparation.”