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Post Georgia, South Carolina, and toughness

Thursday September 11, 2014

Just the mention of Steve Spurrier is enough to send many Georgia fans to the analyst’s couch. Whether the reaction is rage, hatred, scorn, or even begrudging respect, he signed a long-term lease in our heads sometime around 1992. I’m not much of a fan of using history to break down a game, but Georgia’s coaches and players will hear plenty this week about Georgia’s two-game losing streak in Columbia, the traumatic loss two seasons ago, and the offense’s baffling futility over the past 20 years.

If you need a recent example of this mental block, think about the reactions you saw among Georgia fans to South Carolina’s first game. I lost count of the people I saw on Twitter, Facebook, and message boards moping that South Carolina losing to Texas A&M – an actual conference loss that has real benefits for Georgia in the standings – would just rile up the Gamecocks that much more for our game. Don’t want to do anything to get them mad, you know.

There’s a difference between that warped pessimism and actual analysis of the game. There are many reasons to be concerned about the game, especially with a healthy Mike Davis available to South Carolina. Georgia is far from a perfect team. It’s an SEC road game in one of the league’s most difficult venues.

Mark Richt expects a physical game, and he’s described the challenge as a “fistfight” that “could get a little bloody.” He’s probably right. Both teams run the ball well, and if you watched either in its last game you know that both Georgia and South Carolina would love nothing more than to end the game on a long, punishing drive that breaks the will of the opponent as the clock runs down.

But there’s more to toughness than that. Jay Bilas’s outstanding book on toughness looks at some of the specific characteristics of tough players and teams – characteristics like preparation, persistence, and resilience. While Mark Richt correctly expects a test of physical toughness, the mental toughness of both teams will be as important. South Carolina has had a shaky start, especially on defense, and they know that a loss to Georgia puts them in a deep hole in the standings. Are they resilient? Georgia knows its recent history in Columbia and must set aside its success in the opener. Can they be persistent?

One of the storylines of the past two weeks has been how Georgia has dealt with the attention earned from the win over Clemson. They’re now the favorite in this game, ESPN is in town, and the star tailback is on a lot of way-too-early Heisman lists. This much attention and praise can be distracting. Jon Gruden told Bilas that success can be just as dangerous as failure.

“Whether it is complacency from having a big lead, getting loose with details because you have won and experienced success, or making mistakes, getting penalties, missing blocks, or fumbling from a lack of concentration due to complacency, it all comes down to toughness and staying in the here and now. Don’t fool yourself. You can be victimized by both failure and success.”

An overconfident team isn’t a tough team. Tough teams continue to prepare even after some success. They prepare harder. Most teams know enough to pay lip service to that reality, but few do it. This is part of the culture change we hoped that Jeremy Pruitt would help bring to the program. We all enjoyed the Clemson win, but it’s one game.

“We’ve played one football game,” said Pruitt. “I hope our expectations here are to win and dominate our opponents each and every week. I hope that’s the expectation here at Georgia. Now you look at them and we’re all excited because we won a game. That’s one football game. That’s what we’re supposed to do.”

It’s an approach Drew Butler noticed from the defending Super Bowl champions.

Hype isn’t a bad thing. If Georgia is ever going to have a championship quality season, hype will be a by-product of that success. If we want the recognition for Gurley and other standout players that they deserve, the team is going to have to be tough enough to handle the cameras and interviews and high expectations without all of it derailing their focus on the next game.

Pruitt maintains focus by focusing on processes rather than outcomes. “I don’t think you can be results-oriented,” he explained. Win or lose, his focus is on improvement from game to game. Even with the win over Clemson, he welcomed the bye week to continue to work on his new defense. “They can see themselves and where we’re at and where we’ve got to go, which is a long way.”

I know this post is close to “man enough” territory, but it’s more than that. We’re talking about the ability of the team to approach each game with the same high expectations and the toughness to work to meet those expectations. I was encouraged to see some of that toughness in last season’s South Carolina game. The Dawgs shook off the Clemson loss and started off the next game sharp and efficient on offense. They responded to counter-punch after counter-punch from a team that had beaten them three straight times. Finally with the lead in hand, they finished the game with an impressive and physical drive. The challenge is the same this year, but this time it’s on the road in the role of the favorite. I’m looking forward to seeing how the team handles the situation.

One Response to 'Georgia, South Carolina, and toughness'

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  • Excellent article. Hope many alums, supporters, and fans read and take from it what “procesess” means. Too many Dawgs always focus on outcomes and stats. It is more fun sometimes [perhaps all the time] to watch the coaching process of a Pruitt and where he takes his defense in a game. If you compared Grantham to Pruitt, the stats are there for Pruitt. But to get there you have to have the process. He understands that. To have the outcome you have to have the process.
    I have always seen that in your articles.
    Hard work, hard thinking, and raising the bar are important in all levels of a University community and alumni base.
    Our process as alums is important. Your article in some ways is a reminder to us even after we left campus.