SEC: Mark Richt
Let's look back over the season and recap some of the highs and lows:
MVP: This has to go to Murray, who broke multiple SEC career passing records as a senior. The Kentucky game started out as a senior-night tribute to the four-year starter, only to see it end in heartbreak when he suffered the knee injury in the second quarter that ended his season. He returned for his senior season to win a championship, although injuries and a shaky defense prevented Murray from reaching that goal. Nonetheless, his leadership prevented what could have become a major mess when many of Georgia's best offensive skill players were missing in the middle of the season.
Wildest finish: There's no shortage of competition in this category, as Saturday's Tech game was only the most recent Georgia game that was decided in the closing moments. That's what happens when seven of your 12 games are decided by a touchdown or less. But the winner here has to be the Auburn game, when the Bulldogs rallied from a 20-point, fourth-quarter deficit to take a 38-37 lead on Murray's fourth-down touchdown scramble with 1:49 remaining. Murray's heroics were for naught, however, as Nick Marshall hit Ricardo Louis on a deflected 73-yard touchdown pass with 25 seconds remaining, after the pass somehow slipped through Georgia's Josh Harvey-Clemons and Tray Matthews.
Surprise performer: Ramik Wilson. He was certainly not perfect -- particularly in pass coverage -- but Wilson became the SEC's tackles leader by playing nearly every important down and always hustling to the ball. He didn't make much of an impact in his first two seasons while rotating between inside and outside linebacker, but Wilson was a valuable contributor in leading the team with 128 tackles and tying with Jordan Jenkins for the team lead with 11 tackles for loss. He also made one of the Bulldogs' biggest defensive plays of the season when he deflected a Vad Lee pass in the second overtime against Georgia Tech, enabling Damian Swann to knock the ball away for the game-ending incompletion.
Worst defeat: The Auburn loss might have been more painful, but the 31-27 defeat at Vanderbilt was more avoidable. The Commodores outscored Georgia 17-0 in the fourth quarter -- a comeback expedited by a targeting flag on a fourth-quarter pass breakup by Wilson. The penalty was overturned upon review, but it still resulted in a first down and a 15-yard mark-off down to Georgia's 15-yard line, and eventually a Vandy touchdown. Georgia's ineptitude also contributed to the implosion -- including costly turnovers and an overall lack of aggression on offense -- which made it a particularly galling defeat.
Star in the making: Hutson Mason. Several players could figure in here -- Scott-Wesley, outside linebacker Leonard Floyd and safety Harvey-Clemons immediately come to mind -- but this will almost certainly be Mason's team next season. He overcame a shaky start against Tech to lead the Bulldogs back to an overtime win by completing 22 of 36 passes for 299 yards, two touchdowns and an interception. Let's keep in mind that it was the first start of his career, on the road, against arguably Georgia's biggest rival.
Biggest disappointment: We all knew the score when the season started. Georgia's defense lost almost every significant player from last season, minus defensive lineman Garrison Smith, inside linebacker Amarlo Herrera, outside linebacker Jordan Jenkins and cornerback Swann. A reasonable expectation was for the group to struggle against a challenging early schedule and make rapid improvements as the season progressed. Only that improvement never truly occurred with any consistency. Georgia's defense is better off now than it was when the season started, but there is too much talent on that side of the ball for the Bulldogs to keep making the bone-headed mistakes that plagued them for too much of the season.
Biggest relief: The overtime win against Tennessee kept the Bulldogs in the top 10 for another week, but the rally from an early 20-0 deficit against Georgia Tech will likely be the one more Georgia fans remember. Richt has dominated the Yellow Jackets throughout his tenure, but things didn't look promising when Lee was picking apart Georgia's secondary and Mason and the offense were struggling. A second-quarter touchdown drive helped them to settle down, and they went on to deliver an emotional comeback victory.
Best performance: Gurley's four-touchdown performance against Tech (or his early touchdowns against Florida in his return from a month-long absence) would certainly qualify here. But let's go with one of two showings -- and you can't lose with either one -- by Murray against South Carolina or LSU. Murray faced consistent attacks that he shrunk in the spotlight during his early years, but he largely eliminated those criticisms this season. He was nearly perfect against South Carolina, ending the Gamecocks' three-game series winning streak by going 17-for-23 for 309 yards and four touchdowns. Two games later, he went 20-for-34 for four touchdowns and one interception, plus a rushing score, against LSU and hit Scott-Wesley with the game-winning 25-yard touchdown pass with 1:47 remaining.
ATLANTA -- Of course Georgia's season ended like this.
With backup quarterback Hutson Mason making his first career start against Georgia Tech, the Bulldogs spotted the rival Yellow Jackets a 20-0 lead only to rally and force overtime -- and then win 41-34 in the second extra session on a deflected pass that seemed to hang in the air for several minutes.
"I'm just glad I'm still standing," Georgia coach Mark Richt said, relief evident in his weary voice.
Richt's team dealt with injuries to key players all season, played down to the final gun seemingly every week and gave many members of its fan base a good reason to visit a cardiologist. Or a psychiatrist. Or both.
Of course the Bulldogs (8-4) would allow Georgia Tech quarterback Vad Lee, who hadn't exactly looked like Dan Marino this season, to hit multiple big passes in the first quarter -- throws of 68, 43 and 26 yards -- that helped the Yellow Jackets (7-5) build a 17-0 lead by the end of the period. Of course they would rally back behind Mason and tailback Todd Gurley, who scored both overtime touchdowns, and a defense that hadn't been able to stop anyone consistently all season.
It came down to Tech's final overtime possession, with the Jackets grinding all the way down to Georgia's 3 before Leonard Floyd led a host of tacklers to stop Robert Godhigh for a 3-yard loss and force a final fourth-down play.
Lee -- who passed for a season-high 232 yards -- threw over the middle to Darren Waller, only to have linebacker Ramik Wilson tip it into the air. Cornerback Damian Swann then batted the deflection away from Godhigh, and it fell to the ground incomplete.
Unlike their failure under similar circumstances two weeks ago in the final seconds against Auburn, the Bulldogs made the pass breakup that put away a dramatic win against a rival.
"It was up there for a while," said Wilson, who was second on the team with nine tackles. "I hit it as hard as I could, trying to make a play. Then it bounced to Swann, and Swann hit it up again. So I'm just glad that the ball fell down."
Said Gurley, who rushed for 122 yards and three touchdowns and caught four passes for 36 yards and another score: "I was like, 'Thank God.' I just knew somebody from Tech was coming to get that tipped ball, but they didn't."
Early on, it didn't look like there would be any late-game dramatics. Lee went 3-for-4 for 137 yards in the first quarter alone, while Mason and the UGA offense sputtered. It wasn't until the Bulldogs' final drive of the second quarter, which started with just 1:43 remaining until halftime, that they finally began to show a pulse.
Operating out of the up-tempo setup that helped him become a record-setting passer in high school, Mason went 5-for-5 -- including a 9-yard touchdown pass to Gurley -- and ran for a 16-yard gain as the Bulldogs' 86-yard scoring drive cut Tech's halftime lead to 20-7.
Georgia got the ball to open the second half and drove 63 yards to set up Marshall Morgan's 40-yard field goal, and all of a sudden 20-0 became 20-10, and the folks wearing old gold at Bobby Dodd Stadium weren't quite so loud.
"Momentum's huge in a road game, and with that environment and being down 20, they had all of it in the first half," Mason said. "And you can see how quickly it can change."
Then the defense started getting stops more consistently. Tech's vaunted rushing attack picked up chunks of yards -- it finished with 263 yards on 58 attempts -- but the Jackets mustered just one second-half touchdown, while the Bulldogs put 20 points on the board.
They tied the score for the first time at 27-all when Morgan booted a 32-yard field goal, and then the defense stopped Tech at the Georgia 40 on the ensuing possession to force overtime.
It was all Gurley from there. The Bulldogs' All-SEC tailback ran three straight times and scored from 6 yards to answer Lee's touchdown run in the opening OT period. And then Gurley bolted 25 yards up the middle to score on Georgia's first play of the second overtime.
That put it back on the defense -- which forced two punts, intercepted two passes, surrendered a fourth-quarter touchdown pass and saw Tech's Harrison Butker miss a 43-yard field goal after the Jackets went up 20-0 -- to make one final stop.
Unlike the end of that devastating loss to Auburn, when Ricardo Louis caught a floating deflection for the game-winning score, this time they made the play to win.
"I was saying in the locker room it was a little bit of a redemptive feeling after that Auburn game to have this win -- just a little bit," said receiver Michael Bennett, who caught five passes for 53 yards and a touchdown. "Bottom line, we've got to start out better, obviously, but to see our team come back from that is just amazing."
There has been plenty of amazing this season for Georgia. Some of the good kind and some of the bad. Of course, the Bulldogs couldn't finish without providing one more moment to remember.
Stuck behind Aaron Murray –- who this season became the SEC's all-time leading passer -– on Georgia's quarterback depth chart, Mason gave serious thought to transferring simply so he would not spend his entire career as a backup.
“My heart was telling me one thing and my pride was telling me another thing,” Mason said. “My heart wanted to be a Georgia Bulldog, but I knew I just wanted to play and I knew time was running out. It was a very, very tough decision. I don't think I even knew what the right decision was.”
After his freshman and sophomore seasons, Mason saw the writing on the wall. If he remained at Georgia and in the same class as Murray, he might go his entire college career without ever getting a chance to play. He expressed those concerns to Bulldogs coach Mark Richt and asked Richt to shoot him straight.
“He asked me to treat him as I would my own son. If he were my son, what would I tell him?” Richt recalled. “One of the things I told him was that first of all, there’s really no guarantee that wherever you go is going to be any better of a situation. With having to sit out, you might transfer, sit out, and then while you’re sitting out, some other guy may take off and play his tail off, and then all of the sudden you’re stuck.”
More than that, Richt said, Mason was learning and improving while working alongside Murray and quarterbacks coach/offensive coordinator Mike Bobo. The coaches saw potential in Mason that would be useful once Murray left the lineup, whether by injury, by early entry into the NFL draft after the 2012 season or after Murray completed his full eligibility this fall.
“Learning the game of football and learning everything from defenses to the run game, all of the blocking schemes and protections and route concepts, everything that you have to learn in this system – it’s a lot, and he’s really learning football,” Richt said. “I thought he was getting better as he went.”
So they hatched a plan for Mason to redshirt in 2012, providing a year of class separation between himself and Murray so that Mason would have a chance to win the starting job as a senior next fall.
With Murray's season-ending knee injury, however, that opportunity came two games earlier than expected. Mason is preparing to make his first career start on Saturday against one of Georgia's biggest rivals, Georgia Tech.
Obviously, Murray's absence creates uncertainty entering the Tech game – “he was the most prolific passer in the history of the Southeastern Conference, so I think when you lose a guy like that, it doesn't help your chances,” Richt deadpanned earlier this week – but Mason had earned his coaches' and teammates' confidence long before leading Georgia's offense to four touchdowns and a field goal in five possessions against Kentucky last Saturday.
“I feel like I already know how he'll play, which is going to be very well,” junior receiver Michael Bennett said. “Because I know probably everyone on the team will tell you that because of what we see in practice. I know it's different, but you can just tell when a guy's kind of what we [call] a baller, like a gamer, and he's got it.”
Certainly these aren't ideal circumstances for Mason to make his starting debut, first because it came as a result of Murray's injury and second because it's against a Yellow Jackets defense that ranks 17th nationally with 342.6 yards allowed per game.
Mason's unflappable demeanor and capable practice performances gives the Bulldogs confidence and allows them to focus on other issues on offense.
“Hutson executes at the same level that Murray can, being in the system so long,” receiver Chris Conley said. “He just hasn't done it on a game field, I guess, until last Saturday. We're comfortable with him, we're comfortable with it and there's a lot of emphasis that falls on a lot of other people this week because Tech has a very good defense.
“And so we're not really worried about Hutson. There's so many other things that we as an offense have to get better at, and we have to be prepared for this weekend to have success.”
As Bennett and Conley both mentioned, though, what they have seen of Mason is largely limited to practice reps. Saturday at Bobby Dodd Stadium won't be practice, and it won't be mop-up duty against Appalachian State or in relief of Murray against Kentucky once Georgia had already built a big lead.
Saturday will represent Mason's biggest test to date, and his ability to handle the job is one of Georgia's biggest questions entering this game.
“People ask me what I look for in a quarterback: Is he an accurate passer? Is he a good decision-maker? Can he handle the pressure of the job?” Richt said. “Well, we’re about to find out if he can handle the pressure of the job.”
ATHENS, Ga. -- Mark Richt believes the spate of knee injuries that struck his team this season were a fluke and nothing more.
Most of the injuries, including that of record-setting quarterback Aaron Murray, occurred while changing direction, which Georgia's coach said is unfortunately common in athletics. If a training program existed to prevent such injuries, Richt said the Bulldogs' strength and conditioning staff would certainly follow its methods.
“I think the No. 1 sport for ACL injuries from what I understand is girls soccer -- not really a high-contact sport, but a lot of changing direction, and that happens a lot. So I don't think we're doing anything that we shouldn't be doing. It's just been one of those years where we had a few.”
Murray -- who tore the anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee near the end of a 28-yard run in the second quarter of Saturday's win against Kentucky -- is only the most recent example of a problem that started even before the season began. At least six Bulldogs missed all or part of the season after sustaining ACL injuries within the last year.
Freshmen Tramel Terry and Reggie Wilkerson were the first to suffer such setbacks -- Terry in a non-contact situation while returning the opening kickoff in a 2012 postseason all-star game and Wilkerson during summer workouts.
Receiver Malcolm Mitchell sustained his ACL injury while leaping in the air to celebrate Todd Gurley's 75-yard touchdown run in the first quarter of the opener against Clemson. Five weeks later, receiver Justin Scott-Wesley and tailback Keith Marshall both suffered ACL injuries against Tennessee, with Marshall's occurring as he took an awkward hit and Scott-Wesley's coming when he quickly changed direction to avoid running into a return man while covering a punt.
“You've just got to look at each one of them,” Richt said. “Malcolm jumps up and lands funny, and to have an ACL, that happens. Justin Scott-Wesley's changing direction trying to avoid running into a punt [returner]. Aaron's changing direction and it happens. Keith got hit, obviously, and that added to the way his ended up. So I don't think there's really anything you could do or anything that we've done that would cause that type of thing.”
Richt said Murray injured his knee Saturday when he cut to his right in an attempt to gain more yards at the end of his long run -- not on the play that ultimately knocked him out of the game. Although he was visibly struggling with a physical ailment after the run, Murray completed the possession where he suffered the injury and talked his coaches into letting him stay in for the next drive -- playing 13 total downs on the injured knee -- before a hard hit by Kentucky's Za'Darius Smith was the last straw.
“There was something wrong and he knew it and couldn't hide it anymore,” Richt said. “He was trying to hide it from everybody, I think.”
Richt said Murray's staying in the game after sustaining the injury did no additional damage. Murray injured only his ACL, and did so without much swelling around the injured ligament, so he will be able to undergo surgery this week rather than wait at least a week for the swelling to subside.
Murray still has a months-long rehabilitation process ahead, which will prevent him from competing in a postseason all-star game or in the NFL combine, but Richt believes the SEC's all-time leading passer will remain an appealing draft prospect.
“I think he'll get drafted,” Richt said. “ACL injuries, especially if you only have one and you don't have anything extenuating along with it ... there wasn't major damage to his knee, there was just ACL. I may be saying more than I'm supposed to say, but from what I've heard, there's nothing that is connected with it other than that, and those tend to heal very well and rehabs go very well.”
As for the prevalence of the Bulldogs' season-ending knee injuries this fall, Richt said there was a time when such an injury might not have ended a player's season. He used former UGA and NFL receiver Hines Ward, who played his entire college and pro career without an ACL in his left knee -- presumably the result of a childhood accident -- as an example, but there are many others who were able to play more than just 13 downs after sustaining similar injuries.
The goal now for Murray and his other injured teammates is to make good use of their recovery process, and Richt said Murray is “already kind of getting geared up for that challenge.”
“You could play with an ACL torn,” Richt said. “It's just nowadays, you have the imaging now, you have the MRIs, you see what the issue is and you go and make the repair. The repair is usually very successful.”
Here are five things we learned around the league:
Division races going down to the wire: Both the Eastern and Western Division races will go down to the final weekend. Missouri's 24-10 win over Ole Miss means the Tigers can clinch the East -- in its second season in the conference -- by beating Texas A&M Saturday in Columbia. If the Tigers lose, South Carolina will win the division by virtue of its head-to-head win against Mizzou. In the West, Saturday's Iron Bowl will settle the division when Alabama visits Auburn. Right now the unbeaten Crimson Tide have the edge, but the one-loss Tigers would win the tiebreaker if they can upset the Tide.
Vandy's rabbit's foot still working: Vanderbilt backup quarterback Patton Robinette faked a jump pass to freeze a defender and ran for the game-winning touchdown against rival Tennessee with 16 seconds to play. This after Tennessee nearly stopped Commodores quarterback Austyn Carta-Samuels on fourth-and-inches, only to have the initial call that he was stopped short overturned on replay. Vandy now has back-to-back wins over its in-state rival for the first time since a run of six consecutive wins over the Volunteers from 1920 to '26. The Commodores (7-4, 4-4 SEC) have won four of their last five games after sitting at 3-3 early in the season.
Murray's starting streak could end: Georgia laid a vicious 59-17 beating on Kentucky a week after a devastating loss at Auburn, but an injury to Bulldogs quarterback Aaron Murray put a damper on senior night. He injured his left knee in the second quarter and did not return, and coach Mark Richt said afterward that the SEC's all-time leading passer is unlikely to play Saturday against Georgia Tech. Murray has started every game of his college career so far -- he matched David Greene's school record for career starts by a non-kicker (52) -- but the Bulldogs might have to rely on backup Hutson Mason against the rival Yellow Jackets.
More mayhem for Florida: Will Muschamp's job status at Florida already seemed to be in jeopardy -- despite recent assurances to the contrary from his bosses -- even before Saturday's 26-20 loss to Georgia Southern. But the Gators fell to 4-7 with Saturday's defeat -- the program's first to a current FCS program since losing against Villanova in 1946 -- even though Georgia Southern didn't complete any of its three passes. The Eagles ran for 429 yards and held off a final Florida drive to pull the upset. That doesn't bode well for the embattled coaching staff. Florida will fail to play in a bowl game for the first time since 1990 -- Steve Spurrier's first season in Gainesville when the Gators were ineligible to go to a bowl because they were on probation.
Quarterback Aaron Murray -- who has started every game of his career and on Saturday tied David Greene's school record for most career starts by a non-kicker (52) -- injured his left knee in the second quarter and needed assistance to reach the locker room.
Bulldogs coach Mark Richt said he does not expect Murray to play next Saturday against Georgia Tech, but would not rule him out for the Bulldogs' bowl game, pending the results of an MRI on the injured knee.
“It just was hard to have a lot of fun,” Richt said after the game. “Even right now, I'm glad we won and I'm really proud of how we did, but it's kind of a crummy feeling right now when you think about what Aaron is going through.”
Prior to the injury, Saturday's game was shaping up as a glorious going-away party for the senior quarterback in his final game at Sanford Stadium.
He was the centerpiece of an emotional pregame ceremony to honor Georgia's 28 departing seniors, with the home crowd offering a raucous ovation when the SEC's all-time leading passer was the final Bulldog to be introduced. Murray had tossed four touchdown passes (he finished 18-for-23 for 183 yards) and in the first quarter became the first SEC quarterback to pass for 3,000-plus yards in four seasons.
He left Sanford Stadium during the third quarter to undergo an MRI at Athens' St. Mary's Hospital and did not return.
“You could tell in his body language he was hurt,” backup quarterback Hutson Mason said. “It wasn't the same Murray.”
And it was yet another injury in a fall where the Bulldogs (7-4, 5-3 SEC) already lost tailback Keith Marshall and receivers Malcolm Mitchell and Justin Scott-Wesley for the season, while tailback Todd Gurley and receivers Chris Conley and Michael Bennett also missed multiple games with an assortment of injuries.
“He did mention that was about how our season has gone as far as injuries and everything,” Richt said of his conversation with Murray at halftime. “It was tough.”
Mason did an admirable job as Murray's replacement -- he finished 13-for-19 for 189 yards and one touchdown, plus a 1-yard scoring plunge -- but Murray's injury put a major damper on what should have been a happy final outing between the hedges for the seniors.
“Seeing Aaron go down, that was tough. That's one of my best friends. He was one of my groomsmen at my wedding, and seeing him go down, I never want him to go down because most of the time it's my fault,” said senior offensive guard Chris Burnette, whose wife, Arielle, was one of Murray's classmates at Tampa (Fla.) Plant High School.
The Bulldogs quickly made it clear that there would be no lingering hangover in the wake of last week's devastating 43-38 loss at Auburn, when the Tigers scored the game-winning touchdown with 25 seconds to play. Georgia needed only three plays to score its first touchdown -- on a 9-yard pass from Murray to McGowan -- and led Kentucky 21-0 after its first three possessions.
Murray and Gurley were the stars of the early onslaught, with the pair hooking up for a 16-yard touchdown where Gurley soared into the end zone -- reminding Bulldogs fans of Knowshon Moreno's memorable 2008 touchdown dive against Arizona State -- that put Georgia up 14-0.
By the time Gurley left in the third quarter of the blowout, he had rushed eight times for 77 yards, caught five passes for 90 yards and scored two touchdowns.
Not to be miss out on the fun, Georgia's defense posted perhaps its finest outing of the season. A week after surrendering 566 yards to Auburn's potent offense, the Bulldogs held Kentucky (2-9, 0-7) to 211 yards -- 69 of which came on Dyshawn Mobley's first-quarter touchdown run, with 30 more coming on a Maxwell Smith touchdown pass to Javess Blue against the defensive reserves late in the fourth quarter.
“We got some turnovers, too, which was good to see,” said Georgia defensive coordinator Todd Grantham, whose defense recovered three of Kentucky's six fumbles, with those turnovers leading to 21 Bulldogs points. “Kentucky has not turned the ball over a lot.”
Richt credited the seniors for holding the team together through the spate of injuries and a disappointing season that started with a top-five ranking and BCS title aspirations.
“Even though the season had certain expectations and certain hopes got dashed along the way, the leadership was great,” Richt said. “The unity of our team was rock solid because of those guys. And I've said it a couple times, this was a fun team to coach, but I think it was mostly because of the seniors and how they led this year.”
“Keep them boys believing, man,” D.J. Shockley's message read. “Make them answer the bell. This is your legacy. Remember that: how do I want to be remembered when things get a little tough.”
He desperately needed to hear Shockley's message, and was so appreciative that he saved the text as the screen saver on his cell phone so that it would be a constant reminder of his role as a team leader.
“It's the first thing I see every morning when I hit my phone,” Murray said. “I look at it and that little thing right there just meant the world to me. It's awesome to get those kind of supporting text messages from him and [David] Greene and other guys who have played here.”
Circle of support
Murray has a large circle of supporters, ranging from family to teammates to quarterbacks across the country with whom he has formed a bond at various events. But he has a special relationship with those who played quarterback at Georgia before him -- Shockley and Greene, in particular -- because he had the foresight to reach out before taking his first college snap.
“He embraced the guys that have come before him and wanted us to just kind of help him at the very beginning, work with him,” Greene said. “It wasn't ever a relationship where we were talking every day or anything like that. It was more of like a big brother kind of role, I guess. It wasn't like we touched base that often.
““But during the season at times, like after this weekend [when Auburn spoiled a fourth-quarter comeback by scoring the game-winning touchdown with 25 seconds to play], I definitely shot him a text and basically just said, 'Look, I admire the way you play the game.' As a former player that knows what it's like to be in those situations, as much adversity as he faced, you could tell that he wore his heart on his sleeve. He wanted that game and he fought tooth-and-nail to get it back, and he's done that his whole career.”
If you just look at stats, you say, 'Since he's been quarterback, Georgia has not won a big game.' I get it, I agree. But does it mean that I could win the big game because when we played in the SEC championship, we only gave up three points [to Arkansas in 2002]? Does that mean that I could win the big game and he couldn't? No, of course not. It's not fair to compare the two. ... The way that he has played this year I think has completely erased any doubt of whether or not he could play big in big moments.” -- Former Georgia QB David Greene
There are several reasons why Georgia's ex-quarterbacks have developed relationships with the current players on the roster.
One is that the Bulldogs have had the same quarterback-centric head coach and position coach, Mark Richt and Mike Bobo, for the last 13 seasons, which helps maintain continuity between generations. Another is an event that Richt brought from Florida State -- the “Quarterback Classic” -- which serves as a reunion between Richt's ex-Seminoles quarterbacks and current and former Bulldogs signal-callers.
While Murray joked that there is heated competition in events like ping pong, bowling, air hockey, bocce ball and horseshoes, he said that it provided a tremendous outlet.
“I think that's one of the best times of the year, getting together with those guys and playing all these crazy games that only the old guys win because they know how to play them,” Murray said.
Bobo agreed on its value.
“It's a chance for those quarterbacks to meet those older guys and they get contact info from them and they kind of stay in touch," he said. "Greene and Shockley have been real good about staying in touch with all those guys."
With 108 passing yards Saturday against Kentucky -- Murray's final home start as a Georgia player -- he can become the first quarterback in SEC history to pass for 3,000 yards in all four seasons. He's already the only one to do it three times.
He owns the SEC career records for passing yards, total offense, touchdown passes and completions, and could break the marks for pass attempts and touchdown responsibility before season's end.
Statistics are not the only way we measure quarterbacks, though. The glaring hole in Murray's resume is that, unlike Greene (2002) and Shockley (2005), he never won a conference title. It's a painful reality, particularly because of last season's near-miss against Alabama in the SEC championship game, where Murray and the Bulldogs fell just short of a spot in the BCS title game.
“There's also a piece of me that feels a little bad for him because I think there's been a couple of times throughout his career where he's kind of had a legacy moment kind of taken away from him,” Greene said.
Murray would be the first to point out the things he should have done better in games that didn't turn out in Georgia's favor, but Greene is quick to offer a counterpoint of sorts.
Consider the brilliance with which Murray performed in wins against LSU and South Carolina, how he led the last-minute comeback to force overtime against Tennessee with nearly all of his most important playmakers sidelined by injuries, how he dove for the go-ahead touchdown against Auburn, and the argument that he shrinks under the spotlight seems silly.
“If you just look at stats, you say, 'Since he's been quarterback, Georgia has not won a big game.' I get it, I agree,” Greene said. “But does it mean that I could win the big game because when we played in the SEC championship, we only gave up three points [to Arkansas in 2002]? Does that mean that I could win the big game and he couldn't? No, of course not. It's not fair to compare the two. … The way that he has played this year I think has completely erased any doubt of whether or not he could play big in big moments.”
Murray has Shockley have been there. Better than nearly anyone else, they understand the demands Murray faced for the last four seasons – and they remain impressed by how he thrived under those circumstances.
“I think people will say he was arguably one of the best quarterbacks to play at the University of Georgia, but … There's an asterisk right there. They didn't get that championship and that kind of stuff,” Shockley said. “But in my book, he's No. 1. He's done it all. The numbers don't lie. He's put them in position, and obviously he can't play defense and special teams. He's definitely had a great career and worthy of being one of the best.”
Following Saturday's date with Kentucky -- the final game at Sanford Stadium this season -- the Bulldogs will look entirely different on offense the next time they take the field before a home crowd. And many of the players who will take over for the likes of Aaron Murray and his fellow seniors next fall also filled their spots in the fourth quarter of Georgia's 45-6 win over the Mountaineers two weekends ago.
Assuming he wins the quarterback job, Mason will be in a convenient position next season. Georgia loses seven seniors -- Murray, tight end Arthur Lynch, receivers Rantavious Wooten and Rhett McGowan and offensive linemen Chris Burnette, Kenarious Gates and Dallas Lee -- who started on offense against Auburn. And yet the returning skill-position talent surrounding the Bulldogs' next quarterback will be as impressive as that of nearly any offense in the country.
Not only will tailback Todd Gurley return for his junior season, the Bulldogs expect to get receivers Malcolm Mitchell and Justin Scott-Wesley and tailback Keith Marshall back from season-ending knee injuries that crippled the offense at points this fall. That's in addition to other returning weapons like receivers Chris Conley, Michael Bennett and Jonathon Rumph, tight end Jay Rome and tailbacks J.J. Green and Brendan Douglas and 2014 commitments Sony Michel and Nick Chubb, both of whom rank among ESPN's top eight prospects at running back.
Not a bad situation for a first-time starting quarterback who must replace the most distinguished passer in SEC history.
“We've got a lot of weapons,” redshirt freshman receiver Blake Tibbs said. “And Hutson, he don't care who's open. If they put a dog in a helmet and some equipment out there, if he was open, Hutson would throw it to him. That's one thing about Hutson: He don't care. If you're open, he's going to trust you to make the play and he's going to keep throwing to you.”
Mason certainly proved that in his lone opportunity for significant playing time this season. He hit his first eight pass attempts, connecting with the likes of Rumph, Green, freshman Reggie Davis and walk-on Kenneth Towns on his first drive. Then came further completions to Tibbs, Michael Erdman, Douglas and Rumph again before his first incomplete pass.
The common bond there? Those are mostly the players with whom Mason has regularly worked on the Bulldogs' second-team offense, so chemistry was not an issue when they hit the field.
“That group's kind of been playing together -- besides Rumph -- for a long time and a lot of when our twos go against the ones, they always seem to do well and I think there's a chemistry between those guys kind of like Aaron and Bennett and other guys,” offensive coordinator Mike Bobo said.
There's a long time between now and the reserves' time to shine. Heck, there are three games remaining this season.
That means there is plenty of time for the stars in waiting to continue to develop before the Bulldogs open the 2014 season against Clemson on Aug. 30 -- which is exactly the mentality Rumph says he's developing.
“That's what young players have got to understand,” said Rumph, who has six catches in the last three games after missing the first half of the season with a hamstring ailment. “This is your job, so every time you go to school or go to practice, you've got to work to get better. That's all I'm trying to do is keep adding stuff to my game. I've got the feel for the game, I know what I'm capable of. I'm just trying to keep adding stuff to my game.”
Mason echoed those thoughts, pointing out that while even coach Mark Richt has declared Mason as the frontrunner to win the job next season, he still must make good use of this opportunity and not just assume the job is his from the get-go.
He has the opportunity to work with what could be an extremely productive offense next season -- if he stakes a claim on the job.
“I'm not going to be na´ve. I hear about that stuff and I read some of it and stuff like that. I've always been the first to say that I believe they're just being nice,” Mason said. “I believe that I've done a good job of performing when my opportunity comes, but I've never stepped on the field in front of 90,000 and like I was saying earlier, that's different from playing in practice.
“So I enjoy the comments and I enjoy the people that have faith in me, but really myself, I just take it day-by-day and say, 'You know what, what have I proven?' because in reality I haven't proven a lot. So when that opportunity comes, hopefully I'll show up.”
- Auburn's miracle pass and catch to defeat Georgia on Saturday is a play that will stick in the memories of fans for a long time. But for Nick Marshall, it isn't the first time he has completed a desperation heave in the final minute of a game for a win, as his junior college coach recalls.
- In the loss to Auburn on Saturday, Georgia allowed 30 or more than points for the seventh time. After giving up 566 yards and 43 points to the Tigers, coach Mark Richt was asked how satisfied he was with defensive coordinator Todd Grantham and the defensive staff but didn't tip his hand.
- The Alabama offense was plenty frustrated after the 20-7 win over Mississippi State, and the group says it can use this as reason to focus moving forward.
- Missouri was off this weekend but is still in control of its own destiny in the SEC East title chase. A breakdown of where the Tigers are.
- South Carolina coach Steve Spurrier isn't overlooking non-conference opponent Coastal Carolina this week, noting that "It counts the same as the Clemson game on our record."
- LSU coach Les Miles said he doesn't listen to outside criticism, he's just getting his team ready for Texas A&M.
- Ole Miss quarterback Barry Brunetti has primarily been an option in the running game when inserted but now is becoming a passing threat for the Rebels.
- Vanderbilt has been winning the turnover battle lately, with 16 takeaways in its last four games. If that continues, it could be the difference when the Commodores face Tennessee.
- Speaking of the Vols, they need to win their final two games if they hope to get to a bowl game.
- Kentucky's offense hasn't been what some hoped, but much of that has to do with a couple of key components the Wildcats are missing.
Kentucky (2-8, 0-6 SEC) did indeed suffer a difficult defeat, falling 22-6 at Vanderbilt to drop its 14th consecutive conference game. The Wildcats outgained the Commodores 246-172 through three quarters, but Vandy dominated the fourth, enjoying a 141-16 yardage advantage and scoring 13 unanswered points to earn the victory.
But that was just a run-of-the-mill loss compared to the gut-wrenching circumstances by which Georgia lost. The Bulldogs were on the verge of getting blown out early, only to slowly creep back into the game. Then Aaron Murray and the Georgia offense caught fire late, scoring three straight touchdowns and rolling up 216 yards of offense in the fourth quarter alone, only to have Ricardo Louis grab a deflected pass and score the game-winning touchdown on a fourth-down, desperation heave by Nick Marshall.
The loss eliminated Georgia (6-4 overall, 4-3 SEC) from contention in the SEC East and forced the Bulldogs to focus on lesser goals instead of representing the division for a third straight season in the SEC championship game.
“The season isn't over with. We will approach it just like any other game,” said Rantavious Wooten, one of seven seniors who started against Auburn, along with fellow receiver Rhett McGowan, Murray, offensive linemen Chris Burnette, Kenarious Gates and Dallas Lee, and tight end Arthur Lynch. “It's going to be my last game in Sanford Stadium, so we will have to talk to the young guys and tell them to keep the faith and keep fighting.”
There is also the matter of reaching the best bowl possible. Although Georgia's options aren't particularly promising -- the majority of Sunday's bowl projections favor the Bulldogs to play in either the Gator or Music City bowls -- that possibility was off the table for Kentucky weeks ago.
The Wildcats, however, have given Georgia fits in recent years, so the Bulldogs likely can't afford a flat effort. Georgia is 5-2 against Kentucky dating back to a 24-20 loss in Lexington in 2006 -- one of four times in that seven-game stretch where the outcome has been decided by seven points or less.
Considering how Georgia has struggled to finish off opponents -- Saturday was only the most recent heart-stopper for a Bulldogs team that is setting an historically bad pace on defense -- that has to be a cause for concern.
In fact, Georgia's defensive shortcomings were the subject of multiple questions Richt faced on his Sunday teleconference, as Todd Grantham's defense is on pace to set new program marks for most points allowed and most yards allowed.
The 2009 team surrendered 337 points, which is a program high for a season of 12-plus games. This year's team, which is surrendering 30.2 points per game, has already allowed 302 points with three games to play (Kentucky, Georgia Tech and a bowl game). Likewise, the 2013 Bulldogs are on pace to surrender 5,029.7 yards -- potentially just the second time in school history that Georgia allowed 5,000-plus yards after last season's bunch surrendered 5,009 in 14 games.
“Here's what I say: I say we're a team here at Georgia and we're going to keep coaching and keep trying to make improvements and corrections on everything we do, in all phases of the game,” Richt said when asked to rate his level of satisfaction with the defensive coaching staff's performance.
Such a response is common under these circumstances for Richt, who is rarely willing to discuss his concerns publicly. Grantham's defense is preparing to face teams that rank 104th (Kentucky, 349.2 yards per game) and 53rd (Georgia Tech, 432.2) nationally in total offense, so the Bulldogs should have an opportunity to improve their underwhelming defensive stats before the season ends.
It would be much easier to focus on such necessary improvements had safeties Tray Matthews or Josh Harvey-Clemons managed to knock down Auburn's last-gasp touchdown pass to preserve Georgia's comeback win. The Bulldogs would still be alive in the East race and would have a third win against a top-10 opponent this season instead of grasping at less-appealing methods to motivate themselves for their home finale against Kentucky.
That's Richt and company's unique challenge this week after a defeat that could naturally cause lingering dejection -- and the coach said he plans to focus on the positive as best he can.
“We've got to do a good job of, again, pointing out all the positive things that happened and building on those types of things, because there were a lot of tremendous things that happened in the game,” Richt said. “And then make sure we learn from whatever mistakes we had, correct them, have a plan for that, and then we have to get the new game plan in.”
But amidst all the injuries, Murray has remained the one constant for this Georgia football team.
Despite losing multiple weapons on offense, Murray is still third in the SEC with 2,477 yards passing and tied for second with 20 touchdowns. On Saturday, the senior threw his 115th career touchdown pass to become the league’s all-time leader.
“He’s good at everything does,” Auburn coach Gus Malzahn said. “He can hurt you in the pass game. He’s a veteran guy. He’s pretty fast when he takes off, and he knows how to run an offense. He’s one of the better quarterback to ever play in this league, and I think that says it all.”
But Auburn has an ace up its sleeve when Murray comes to town this weekend. First-year defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson has been around the SEC, and he faced the Georgia quarterback twice while he was running the defense for South Carolina.
As a freshman, Murray finished 14-of-21 for 192 yards against the Gamecocks with no touchdowns and no interceptions. He was sacked three times. The next year, he fared better, throwing for 248 yards and four touchdowns, but Georgia still lost. He’s won a lot of games in his career, but he’s yet to beat Johnson.
Johnson will have his unit prepared and Auburn has improved dramatically under Johnson.
The Tigers are up 44 spots from last year in scoring defense (66th to 22nd). They have allowed 204 points through the first 10 games, the fewest points Auburn has allowed through 10 games since 2008. They’re also second in the SEC in red zone defense.
“He's outstanding,” Georgia coach Mark Richt said. “There's a reason why Auburn is playing so much better on defense. He's got a long history of going to different places, and within the very first season, turning that thing around statistically in a big way. He's done it again here at Auburn.
“As much as running the football has been big for Auburn and Nick Marshall playing great has been big, the defense has been a big part of this turnaround as well.”
Johnson isn’t the only one who knows the Bulldogs well. First-year defensive line coach Rodney Garner spent 15 seasons in Athens, Ga., before accepting the same role with Auburn in the offseason. He knows this Georgia team inside and out.
But familiarity with a team only goes so far.
“I think people know what we're going to do,” Richt said. “So can they out-execute us? Same thing with us, can we out-execute them? After a while, there's really not many secrets. The reality is we all get each other's film. We get every single game film that we want, so you can't really hide what you do.”
There’s a lot at stake for both teams Saturday. Murray is hoping to keep Georgia alive in the SEC East, but it’s up to Johnson and this Auburn defense to stop him. The Tigers are just two wins away from a trip to Atlanta for the conference title game.
Entering Saturday's visit to No. 7 Auburn (9-1, 5-1 SEC), No. 25 Georgia (6-3, 4-2) is the healthiest it has been on offense since a disastrous visit to Tennessee when tailback Keith Marshall and receiver Justin Scott-Wesley went down with season-ending knee injuries and wideout Michael Bennett suffered a knee injury that knocked him out of the lineup temporarily.
“We're getting guys back, which is good, but they've also missed a lot of practice time, which on the flip side is a negative,” Georgia offensive coordinator Mike Bobo said. “So we're having to work a little harder than we may have in the past in November. But I think it's good. I think it's a confidence boost to the offense.”
Conley leads the team with 30 catches for 418 yards and four touchdowns, while Lynch's 15 catches for 243 yards rank fifth. But while their receiving production is obviously important, their simple presences in the lineup -- alongside players with whom they've shared so many practice and game reps -- are just as valuable.
“It definitely helps the chemistry because we went through camp all together and you kind of get that chemistry with those guys together,” said Bennett, who posted a team-high five catches in each of the two games since he returned to the lineup. “You can lose it when you've got new guys coming in. But those other guys have done a heck of a job coming in and filling in for us. But when you have those veterans come back like Artie and Conley, it definitely brings a new confidence.”
Lynch's return is well-timed, as Rome was the only other scholarship tight end who has played this season. Freshman Jordan Davis is on track to redshirt and walk-on Hugh Williams has played as a blocker, but has yet to catch a pass.
Meanwhile, Conley brings some punch back to a receiving corps that struggled during Georgia's midseason lull, when at one point they were without tailbacks Todd Gurley and Marshall and wideouts Mitchell, Scott-Wesley and Bennett. It's no coincidence that the Bulldogs lost to both Missouri and Vanderbilt during that period, or that they posted a paltry 221 yards of total offense -- including just 114 passing -- in the Vandy loss.
Conley seemed questionable at best for the Auburn game early in the week, but he was able to practice in non-contact drills on Wednesday which encouraged Bulldogs coach Mark Richt.
“I was telling the quarterback, 'He's going half-speed' or whatever, and Conley kind of ran a little faster than half-speed and snatched the ball,” Richt said. “And Bobo was looking around like, 'We ought to let him practice a little bit.' … He didn't practice the whole time, but he got some work in and he looked good. I don't think he had any setbacks.”
Richt insisted that Conley's role might still be limited should he play on Saturday, but he comes back to a group of receivers that had to look elsewhere for production during his two-game absence -- and might have found another spark in Jonathon Rumph.
The junior college transfer was sidelined by a hamstring injury throughout the first half of the season and played sparingly for the first time two weeks ago against Florida. He caught his first passes -- four of them, in fact, for 98 yards -- in the fourth quarter against Appalachian State, causing Bobo to remark that he's “actually getting excited about him” earlier this week.
“I had a feeling that I knew what I was going to do, but I really didn't want to mess up,” Rumph said of his performance last week. “I focused a lot on the game plan, I knew everything I had to do and everybody on the sideline kept me lifted. The starters told me, 'All right, when you're opportunity comes, take advantage.' That's all it was, just making plays for my team.”
For the first time in more than a month, Georgia's offense has a wide array of players who seem ready to do that. The main one to watch is likely Gurley, who is still not back to 100 percent and has not been able to handle a full workload in the two games since returning from an ankle injury. But quarterback Aaron Murray clearly has more established weapons at his disposal than he has had in weeks, and that can only be a positive sign for the Bulldogs.
“The more guys you get out there that Murray feels comfortable with, I think, the better,” Bobo said.
He hails from Columbus, Ga. He was teammates with Isaiah Crowell, a five-star running back who signed with the Bulldogs. As a sophomore, Wright thought he wanted to stay in state and play for Georgia.
But all that changed when Todd Grantham replaced Willie Martinez as Georgia’s defensive coordinator. The Bulldogs transitioned from a 4-3 defense to a 3-4 defense, and among other things, Wright didn’t feel like he was a fit with the in-state school anymore.
So on signing day, when Crowell held up a bulldog puppy to announce his intentions to sign with Georgia, Wright put on an Auburn hat and signed with the Tigers.
Mark Richt and his staff inked 19 recruits from the Peach State in that 2011 class, but they let Wright, the state’s No. 4 prospect, slip away.
At first, the decision looked like it could be the wrong one. Wright watched as Georgia went 12-2 last season, narrowly missing a chance to play for the BCS national championship. Meanwhile, Auburn finished 3-9 and failed to win an SEC game. When the two teams met, Georgia shut out the Tigers to the tune of 38-0 last November.
“Before this season, I remember telling the [players] it was hard to go home and wear some of our 'AU' gear because we were 3-9,” Wright said. “It's not so much that people look at the Georgia game. It was just as a whole.”
But Wright never doubted his decision. He never wavered.
Now, Auburn is 9-1, ranked No. 7 in the BCS, and it controls its own destiny in the SEC West. It’s been the biggest turnaround in college football, and Wright can proudly wear his Auburn gear when he goes back home now.
But the Tigers face an old nemesis on Saturday in Georgia, a team that has beat them in eight of the past 11 games.
“It's the Deep South's Oldest Rivalry,” Wright said. “From a personal standpoint, I've yet to beat Georgia. There are a lot of guys that have yet to beat Georgia, all except that senior class.”
In all, Auburn has 26 players from the state of Georgia on its roster. It’s a big game from the standpoint of where the Tigers are and what they can still accomplish, but it’s also a big game on a personal level for a number of players.
“Growing up, all I hear is Georgia so I’m definitely amped up about this game for sure,” said tight end C.J. Uzomah, a native of Suwanee, Ga.
Cornerback Jonathon Mincy grew up in Atlanta as a Georgia fan, but he wasn’t even recruited by the Bulldogs.
"For everybody from Georgia, this is a personal game,” Mincy said. “Just us being there, being [from] in state and for the folks that weren't able to be recruited. It's going to be a fun game, and I'm excited to go out there and play."
But ultimately, it’s just another game on the schedule. Auburn has taken the one-game-at-a-time approach, and this week is no different. It doesn’t matter that it’s a rivalry game. It doesn’t matter that there will be plenty of familiar faces on the opposite sideline. It’s just another game.
“All that aside, it's another week,” Wright said. “Guys have showed that we've been able to persevere, push through. There ain't no stopping now.”
That bond between players will face an unusual test on Saturday when former Dream Teamer Nick Marshall – now Auburn's starting quarterback after Bulldogs coach Mark Richt dismissed him, Sanford Seay and Chris Sanders following the 2011 season after getting caught stealing from teammates – will stand on the opposite sideline from his former classmates.
Georgia was coming off a disappointing 6-7 season when the Dream Team signed with the Bulldogs, and the group was never shy in expressing its intention of helping the program get back on track. They had the nation's top tailback and No. 4 overall prospect in Isaiah Crowell, another five-star talent in Drew, the No. 1 tight end in Rome and a large group including Mitchell, John Jenkins, Amarlo Herrera, Chris Conley and Damian Swann who would contribute soon after becoming Bulldogs.
There was a level of self-assurance within the group that was somewhat unusual for a group of freshmen.
“Coming in I do believe the guys did have some confidence about themselves – that this was going to be the class that did some big things,” Drew recalled. “And there's still that possibility. We still can. That swagger you're talking about, I can see that being there. It was. You can't deny it.”
Truth be told, they've already been part of some big things. Crowell was named the SEC's Freshman of the Year in his lone season on campus – he was dismissed in the summer of 2012 after a weapons possession arrest and is now starring at Alabama State – and the Bulldogs won their first SEC East championship since 2005.
They played in a second straight SEC championship game at the end of last season and fell only a few yards short of playing for a BCS title – with multiple Dream Team members playing key roles on a team that would finish fifth nationally.
“I think we've actually got a good resume being here,” said Swann, now in his second season as a starting cornerback. “We beat Auburn twice, we beat Florida three times, we've been to the SEC championship two times since I've been here. We're 1-1 in a bowl game. I think with the resume that my class has put together, I think it's actually one to look at, and I think we're continuing to improve it and make it better.”
That they are. Linebacker Ramik Wilson leads the SEC with 92 tackles, with Herrera's 79 stops ranking fourth. Drew is sixth in the league with six sack. Wideouts Mitchell, Conley and Justin Scott-Wesley have all flashed star potential, although injuries have struck all three players this season. Center David Andrews, also a second-year starter, is one of the leaders of the Bulldogs' offensive line.
And junior college transfer Jenkins is already in the NFL – the New Orleans Saints picked him in the third round of this year's draft – after solidifying the middle of the Bulldogs' defensive line in 2011 and 2012.
“We've done some pretty good things,” said defensive end Bailey, who has started eight times this season in his first significant dose of playing time. “You had some players from the Dream Team come in and make an impact and then you had some players behind some great players who are playing in the NFL right now and got experience and now being in the third year, we're putting all that experience to work.”
The Georgia journey ended early for several members of the class. Marshall, Seay and Sanders were all dismissed together and Crowell followed them out the door a few months later. Safety Quintavious Harrow left shortly after his former Carver-Columbus teammate and close friend Crowell.
In all, seven members of the 26-man signing class are either gone or never enrolled at Georgia at all (linebacker Kent Turene). But the remaining Dream Teamers still maintain a close bond, Drew said.
“There's a tightness between us,” he said. “I think even though we're tight as a team, I think there's just one more stitch or two between us that pulls us close. Whenever you see one person, you're always going to see someone else from the same class right there with them just tagging along.”
The bulk of the class should remain intact for at least one more season, with several more Dream Teamers who redshirted still carrying two seasons of eligibility after 2013. That time, they said, is what will determine whether they meet the high expectations that accompanied their arrival.
“We're still in the process,” Wilson said. “A lot of us are just now starting to play, so it's in the process of something becoming great.
“We all had high expectations of playing early and turning this program around. As soon as we stepped on this campus, we went to the SEC championship from that 6-7 year. So all we had was nothing but success here, 10-win seasons, since I've been here. So we're just trying to keep that going.”
Well, Georgia offensive coordinator Mike Bobo has been home, aside from one season he spent at Jacksonville State in 2000 as an assistant coach, ever since playing quarterback for the Bulldogs from 1994-97.
He’s a rarity these days in college football. He’s one of the few former players that are now assistant coaches at their alma maters.
Bobo, 39, is in his 19th season at Georgia as a player, graduate assistant or assistant coach. He and Kentucky offensive coordinator Neal Brown are the only two coaches in the SEC calling plays at the school in which they played, although Brown finished his college career at Massachusetts.
While Bobo will always be a Dawg at heart, he didn’t grow up dreaming about playing for Georgia, and when his playing career ended in 1997, it wasn’t necessarily his goal to coach at Georgia.
It just sort of happened that way.
The son of a legendary high school coach in the state of Georgia, George Bobo, the younger Bobo just knew that he wanted to coach. He spent a couple of seasons at Georgia as an administrative assistant and graduate assistant under his old coach, Jim Donnan, and then went to Jacksonville State in 2000 to coach quarterbacks.
In Bobo’s mind, his days at Georgia were probably in his rear-view mirror until Mark Richt came along in 2001.
“When coach Richt called me up and wanted to talk, people were saying that he might ask me to come back and be a GA, and I’d already been a GA here for two years. I was like, ‘I’m big time. I’m coaching my position (quarterbacks) here at Jacksonville State. I’m not coming back as a GA,’” Bobo joked.
But when he met Richt, his tune quickly changed.
“It wasn’t about football,” Bobo recalled. “It was about my life, his life, family, how he wanted to treat the players. I was like, ‘I’ve got to get around this guy. If I really want to get into coaching, I need to be around a guy like this, just his passion for life and players.’
“My dad always said, ‘Whatever you do, surround yourself with good people,’ and I decided that I was going to go work for this guy no matter what.”
That first season, Bobo was basically a full-time graduate assistant. But as he gained more of Richt’s confidence, his role increased. In 2007, Bobo was promoted to offensive coordinator and replaced Richt as the Bulldogs’ play-caller.
It takes a special person to call plays at any big-time school. But when you’re one of their own, the criticism and second-guessing can really get nasty. Bobo, despite the Bulldogs’ offensive success on his watch, has been a frequent target of the fans.
He learned a long time ago to develop a thick skin.
“The thing that matters to me is that when I walk into that room, the players believe in what we’re doing,” Bobo said. “If they believe in that and believe in me, we’ve got a chance. And I’ve never felt that those guys don’t believe.
“If you let the outside noise get to you, it will eat you alive.”
The truth is that Bobo has probably been one of the more under-appreciated offensive coordinators in college football. Since becoming coordinator, Georgia has averaged more than 30 points per game every season but 2009 when the Bulldogs averaged 28.9.
The 2012 Georgia offense scored a school-record 529 points and racked up more than 40 in eight games. The Dawgs also set a school record in 2012 with 37.8 points per game, 37 touchdown passes, 6,547 total yards and 72 touchdowns scored.
Even this season with all the injuries, Georgia is still fourth in the SEC in total offense with an average of 478.6 yards per game (22nd nationally) and averaging 35.6 points per game.
More importantly, the Bulldogs can stay alive in the Eastern Division race Saturday with a win at No. 7 Auburn.
“The thing you keep coming back to is that this is your school and your state, and there’s an incredible amount of pride associated with being able to represent both every day when I come to work,” Bobo said.
That doesn’t mean he hasn’t had opportunities to leave.
A year ago, Virginia Tech tried to hire him and actually sent a plane to Athens to pick him up, but Bobo never got on it. Georgia rewarded him with a $240,000 raise and three-year contract, and he now ranks among the highest-paid offensive coordinators in the league.
Football isn’t the only thing that’s kept Bobo in Athens. He and his wife, Lainie, have five kids under the age of 10, including triplets, and he said it’s impossible to put a price on being able to raise your family in the same place, especially in the volatile world of coaching.
Sure, there have been times that he’s cast a wandering eye around the college football landscape and asked himself if he were limiting his opportunities by staying in the same place for so long. But he always arrives back at the same answer.
“You might look around and think, ‘I should be doing this or doing that or maybe wonder what it would be like to go somewhere else,’” Bobo said. “But at the end of the day, what we’ve got here is hard to beat.”