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November 16, 2007
Since Georgia was blown out at Tennessee, Mark Richt has undergone a transformation from a mild-mannered, by-the-book coach to a tricky risk-taker.
His team has followed suit.
The eighth-ranked Bulldogs look to stay in the SEC East race and win their fifth straight Saturday when they host No. 22 Kentucky, which hasn't won in Athens in 30 years.
Georgia (8-2, 5-2) was 4-1 and No. 12 in the country when it visited Knoxville on Oct. 6. Tennessee dominated the Bulldogs, not allowing them to cross midfield in the first half and jumping out to a 28-0 second-quarter lead before winning 35-14. It was Georgia's worst loss since falling 34-13 to LSU in the 2003 SEC championship game.
The next week Georgia needed a last-second Brandon Coutu field goal to avoid an upset at Vanderbilt, and the Bulldogs celebrated by dancing on the Commodores' logo at midfield - payback in their eyes for a similar scene a year earlier when Vanderbilt had won in Athens.
Richt derided the celebration, but when Georgia took the field against Florida following a week off, he planned one of his own.
As soon as freshman running back Knowshon Moreno scored the Bulldogs' first touchdown against the Gators, the entire team joined him in the end zone for a Richt-endorsed celebration. Georgia received a 15-yard excessive celebration penalty, but Richt told the Bulldogs they'd be doing early morning runs if they weren't flagged.
After a win against Troy, Richt fired up his team in the locker room before a visit from Auburn by surprising his players with black jerseys - an outfit Georgia had never worn. The Bulldogs then marched onto the Sanford Stadium field to AC/DC's "Back in Black," and rode that emotion to a 45-20 win.
"The players have wanted to have black jerseys for years now and I always resisted," Richt said. "It just so happened to be this game we chose before the season started. I'm glad we're still playing for something significant. I knew it would give us a boost and at least get us a jump start."
Aside from the emotion Richt has instilled, it's been Moreno who has made the difference for Georgia. Since making his first career start at Vanderbilt, he has averaged 161 yards rushing and has scored eight touchdowns. With the opposition having to respect the run, quarterback Matthew Stafford has faced less pressure, and has thrown for 872 yards with eight touchdowns and only three interceptions during that span.
"(The Tennessee loss) seems like three months ago actually," Richt said. "It's just amazing what's happened since then really. This is college football."
But because of the loss to the Volunteers, the Bulldogs don't control their own destiny despite sitting a half-game ahead of Tennessee in the East. They'll need the Vols to drop either their game this weekend against Vanderbilt or their season-ending contest at Kentucky (7-3, 3-3).
While the Bulldogs have been on the upswing, Kentucky has lost two of its last three since knocking off No. 1 LSU in Lexington. The Wildcats dropped consecutive home games before beating Vanderbilt 27-20 last week on the road.
"If we put our eyes on bowls, that's no place we need to be," Kentucky tight end Jacob Tamme said. "It's exciting to have this program where we are talking about back-to-back years for a bowl game, but right now we have to get ready for the hottest team in the SEC."
In addition to having its program back in the spotlight, Kentucky has a quarterback that's garnering attention. Senior Andre' Woodson is third in the country in touchdown passes with 29 and leads the SEC with 265.3 passing yards per game.
Though Kentucky hasn't won in Athens since 1977, this group of Wildcats knows what it's like to defeat Georgia. Kentucky beat the Bulldogs in Lexington last year, a 24-20 upset that got Tamme choked up.
"I balled for about 15 minutes on the field in front of everybody," Tamme said. "It was such an emotional win because of the history of this program. Then, to be able to build on that since then, we've had some other great wins."
Since that victory, Kentucky won a bowl game for the first time since 1984 by beating Clemson in the Music City Bowl, and has knocked off two top 10 opponents this season - then-No. 9 Louisville and LSU.
The Wildcats have never beaten three top 10 teams in one season, but that could change on Saturday.
"The Georgia game last year means nothing for us going into this game," coach Rich Brooks said. "We are at least still a factor in the SEC race, no matter how you cut it."
Before winning last year, Kentucky had lost nine in a row and 14 of 15 to Georgia.
The Wildcats may be without running back Rafael Little, who is questionable after injuring his back last week. Little missed three games with a thigh injury before returning to run for 70 yards against the Commodores but carried just once in the second half after hurting his back.