ATHENS, Ga. -- Some of Georgia's senior football players, who will play a final time in Sanford Stadium this Saturday against Kentucky, signed with the Bulldogs in 2007 and redshirted. Some signed in 2008 and have played straight through.
Either way, they joined an elite program that went into sharp decline before rebounding this season to land on the doorstep of a Southeastern Conference title game.
"We're a group of guys who came in on top and feel like we've been dipped through the ringer," redshirt senior tight end Aron White said Tuesday. "We've kind of clawed and scratched and fought our way back out of that and back up towards the top. Depending on where we end up this season, we could be very close to the very top."
A win over the Wildcats would give No. 13 Georgia its first SEC East championship since 2005. It also would clinch a 7-1 league record for the Bulldogs, matching the 2002 team for the best SEC mark in 20 seasons of divisional play.
The seniors who redshirted in '07 got to experience a team that won the Sugar Bowl and finished No. 2 nationally, and those who arrived in '08 joined a program that was tabbed the preseason No. 1. Then the slide began -- from 10-3 in '08 to 8-5 in '09 to 6-7 last season to an 0-2 start this year.
Before the Bulldogs trounced Coastal Carolina 59-0 on Sept. 17 to begin their current eight-game winning streak, they had gone 15-15 in their 30 previous contests.
"Right now they are very optimistic about how their senior season can finish," coach Mark Richt said. "We all know it wasn't a tremendous start, but through their leadership and their play and perseverance, we've found a way to battle back in this thing and turn this thing into a season that might be one that everybody will remember real fondly. I'm proud of them.
"They've been through a lot. They've been through some rough moments, but they're here and they're in a good place right now."
Eight senior starters will complete for a final time in Sanford: center Ben Jones, tackles Cordy Glenn and Justin Anderson, fullback Bruce Figgins, defensive end DeAngelo Tyson, cornerback Brandon Boykin, punter Drew Butler and kicker Blair Walsh. It might be the final home game for junior starters such as tight end Orson Charles and safety Bacarri Rambo, but they have not made their intentions known regarding next season.
The Bulldogs could parlay their strong finish this season into another lofty preseason ranking next year, but the losses of Jones, Glenn and Anderson will leave redshirt sophomore quarterback Aaron Murray working behind a youthful front.
"As a quarterback, you love your tackles, and those guys have been awesome," Murray said. "Ben is probably our main leader and has taken charge of this team and led us in the right direction."
Receiver A.J. Green and outside linebacker Justin Houston decided to skip their senior seasons following last year's loss to Central Florida in the Liberty Bowl, but Boykin and Glenn elected to return. That gave the Bulldogs at least a little momentum entering the offseason, but not nearly enough to counter the criticism of a deteriorating program.
Then the top two tailbacks from last season, Washaun Ealey and Caleb King, failed to meet requirements and left.
"I think really it was just about getting everybody on the same page and getting that kind of team vision and driving everybody in that one direction," Butler said. "That's what leadership is, getting people focused on one goal, and I think that's exactly what we've done."
Said White: "We kind of jeopardized our coaches and this program to a degree during our time here, but then we let some people go and banded together. I think that will speak a lot to how we're remembered here."
Contact David Paschall at email@example.com or 423-757-6524.
UGA photo/Paul Abell
Georgia senior center Ben Jones (60) and senior left tackle Cordy Glenn (71) will protect quarterback Aaron Murray for the final time at Sanford Stadium this Saturday.