ATHENS, Ga. – A day before his Georgia team toppled then-No. 6 LSU, running backs coach Bryan McClendon shared a personal experience from his playing days with a current Bulldogs veteran.
McClendon was a junior receiver on the 2004 Georgia team that slaughtered defending BCS champion LSU 45-16 at Sanford Stadium only to turn around the very next Saturday and lose to double-digit underdog Tennessee, 19-14.
“I actually was talking to B-Mac about that yesterday,” Georgia cornerback Damian Swann said after the Bulldogs' emotional 44-41 win on Saturday. “Him and Dan [Inman, a UGA graduate assistant who was a starting offensive tackle that season] played on that team.”
Swann and most of his teammates are too young to clearly remember that letdown, immediately following what at the time seemed like one of the Georgia program's biggest victories in years. But McClendon and Inman no doubt share bitter memories about the loss -- the first of that season for a Georgia team that came in harboring BCS title hopes -- and how it left the Bulldogs with familiar thoughts about what might have been.
A sloppy overall performance, like when a holding penalty eliminated McClendon's second-quarter kickoff return to the Tennessee 2-yard line, caused Georgia to fall against a Tennessee team that lost 34-10 to Auburn only a week earlier.
Flash forward to 2013 and the scenario is similar.
Granted, this Tennessee team (3-2, 0-1 SEC) isn't in the same class as the 2004 Vols, who rebounded from the Auburn loss to win the rest of their conference games and claim the SEC East title. First-year coach Butch Jones' team barely managed to end its two-game losing streak on Saturday, edging South Alabama 31-24 following a pair of dismal showings against Oregon and Florida.
Nonetheless, the Vols opened as 10-point underdogs for this weekend's home game against Georgia, which is actually 2.5 points more favorable odds than their 2004 predecessors faced when they visited Athens that season.
With No. 6 Georgia (3-1, 2-0) having just completed the most brutal September schedule in college football -- they opened with a road loss at No. 3 Clemson and then followed with consecutive wins against No. 13 South Carolina, North Texas and No. 10 LSU -- it was a good time for McClendon to remind the modern-day Bulldogs of his career history. His 2004 team's mental letdown spoiled a season that could have ended with a slot in a BCS bowl instead of in Tampa, Fla., playing in the Outback Bowl.
“We're happy to make it out of this month. I don't think nobody had it as rough as us. Nobody. And at the end of the day, that's a plus for us,” Swann said. “I think with the resume we just put up in September, we've just got to go out and continue to do what we do and we're going to be fine. Right now we have the best resume in the country, playing three top-10 teams in four weeks -- and we're 3-1. We're going to keep getting better and we're going to keep balling. We've just got to keep grinding.”
And keep staying focused.
Georgia has hardly been a dominant team thus far -- certainly not in the games where the defense struggled mightily against top-10 opponents and even in the 45-21 win against North Texas, where the teams were tied at 21 in the third quarter. The Bulldogs can't afford to turn in such a flat performance against the likes of Tennessee, Missouri or Vanderbilt over the next few weeks or their Nov. 2 showdown with No. 18 Florida in Jacksonville, Fla., won't mean as much as it could.
That's a message Bulldogs coach Mark Richt will certainly join McClendon in sending this week, and he'll have historical precedent to support his claims.
“Next week, if we think it's going to be any easier, we're crazy,” Richt said. “We're going Knoxville, Tenn., man. They're going to be fired up, their fans are going to be ready to go and if we think it's going to be anything less than what we've been living through, we're nuts.
“We played North Texas and that was a barn burner, so every game's going to be a barn burner until we really get more stout on defense and continue to get our special teams in order.”