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August 31, 2007Game Ticker
An impressive surge to end last year made Georgia's rough midseason stretch a distant memory - and gave the Bulldogs a good deal of optimism going into 2007.
The No. 13 Bulldogs look to carry over the momentum from their final three games of 2006 when they open their season against a confident Oklahoma State squad at Sanford Stadium on Saturday night.
Georgia won its first five games last season, but the fast start gave way to a 1-4 stretch during SEC play. The Bulldogs were pounded 51-33 by Tennessee for their first loss, then suffered a stunning 24-22 defeat to woeful Vanderbilt - both losses coming at home.
The Bulldogs barely overcame a weak Mississippi State team in Athens the next week, then dropped the next two games to Florida and Kentucky on the road. Georgia, though, lost to the eventual national champion Gators by seven points and the Wildcats by four - perhaps a sign of what was to come the rest of the season.
The Bulldogs routed Auburn 37-15 on the road and edged Georgia Tech at home before rallying from an 18-point deficit to upset Virginia Tech 31-24 in the Chick-fil-A Bowl.
"It helped a lot in the offseason, getting through workouts and things like that knowing we came off a good finish at the end of the year," quarterback Matthew Stafford said. "It definitely helped us out knowing we can win games a bunch of different ways this year."
Stafford was one of the main reasons for Georgia's turnaround. The sophomore seized the starting job after coach Mark Richt juggled him and two others in the first half of the season. In the final three games, Stafford was a workmanlike 39-of-70 for 519 yards and three touchdowns.
It was an improvement from the three games against Mississippi State, Florida and Kentucky, when Stafford tossed eight interceptions and only two TDs. He went 13-of-33 against the Gators.
"He learned how important it is to take care of the football," said Richt, whose team finished 9-4. "He learned to put his teammates in position to succeed. He learned that you don't have to play lights out to win the game."
Stafford's continued development may hinge on the development of a receiving corps that comes with a lot of question marks. Mohamed Massaquoi tied for the team lead with only 30 receptions, and Georgia will also need players like Mikey Henderson and A.J. Bryant to step up and give the team's young quarterback reliable targets.
The Bulldogs boast a strong group of running backs with seniors Kregg Lumpkin, who led the team with 798 yards rushing in 2006, and Thomas Brown, who's returning from a serious knee injury. Richt has been particularly impressed with Brown as he works his way back.
"His work ethic is unbelievable," Richt said. "You just can't keep him off the field. We could not have predicted that he would come back that strong and that confident. He practices with a lot of energy. He gives maximum effort every day."
While Georgia's strong close to the season has made them confident, the Bulldogs will be facing an Oklahoma State squad that apparently isn't intimidated by the task of facing a more storied opponent on the road.
"I'm loving the fact that we're playing a ranked team," said wide receiver Adarius Bowman, who led the Cowboys with 60 catches for 1,181 yards and 12 touchdowns last season. "Hopefully after we knock them off, we end up being ranked."
The bravado may not be completely unfounded. Oklahoma State was just 7-6 in 2006, but knocked off Alabama 34-31 in the Independence Bowl and finished the season with the No. 7 scoring offense in the nation. The Cowboys suffered five losses by 26 total points in coach Mike Gundy's second year.
"If we win this game, I think it'll be like a swagger motivator, a confidence-booster for all the coaches and players, and just open up a lot of eyes of everybody in the nation that didn't really think that Oklahoma State was representing," receiver Tommy Devereaux said.
Oklahoma State is led by junior quarterback Bobby Reid, who completed 148 of 267 passes for 2,266 yards with 24 touchdowns and just 11 interceptions.
Oklahoma State has won its last three season openers, but Georgia has won 10 consecutive home openers.
The Cowboys and Bulldogs have met only twice, in 1946 and '47, when Oklahoma State was known as Oklahoma A&M. Georgia took both matchups.