Fifth-year seniors come full circle

ATHENS, Ga. -- As Georgia's freshmen wandered around New Orleans' French Quarter on the night of Jan. 1, 2008, they were filled with excitement about what the future held for their Bulldogs.

Georgia had just extended a seven-game win streak by blasting Hawaii 41-10 in the Sugar Bowl -- a victory that would help the Bulldogs finish the season with a No. 2 national ranking and start 2008 as the preseason No. 1 team.

"That was definitely a lot of fun, having the whole Bulldog Nation fan base down there with you to celebrate the win. It was awesome," punter Drew Butler recalled. "It was pretty much at a fever pitch."

Winning an SEC championship seemed like a foregone conclusion for those young players, but the Bulldogs never even reached the league's title game. Instead, those freshmen were part of teams whose win total declined each year, from 11 in 2007 to 10, to eight, to six last season. And more bitter disappointment seemed to be on the horizon when the Bulldogs lost the first two games of this season, their fifth and final year to wear Georgia's red and black as active players.

But as they approach their last home game in a Georgia uniform, those fifth-year seniors realize they have a chance to change their legacy. The Bulldogs (8-2, 6-1 SEC) have won eight in a row since that 0-2 start -- matching the longest in-season winning streak for a Mark Richt-coached Georgia team -- and need only one more victory, this weekend against Kentucky (4-6, 1-5), to clinch the program's first trip to the SEC championship game since 2005.

"After that season, I just thought we were going to run the table, especially since that next year we started out at No. 1 in the preseason," senior receiver Israel Troupe said of 2007. "That was a great season for us, too, but the next two were just like, 'Wow, what's going on?' For us to turn it around and for us to be positive and for us as seniors to still lead our group into this year, it's amazing just seeing how everybody stayed positive and we didn't unravel."

Forward and back

Only six members of Georgia's 2007 signing class remain: Butler, Troupe, fullback Bruce Figgins, tight end Aron White, and offensive linemen Trinton Sturdivant and Justin Anderson. Sturdivant is sitting out the season after suffering a torn ACL in spring practice.

They are the roster's only link between the unbridled optimism on Bourbon Street on New Year's night in 2008 and the program-shaking stretch in which the Bulldogs lost nine of 15 games, from the start of the 2010 season and through the first two games this fall.

"I can appreciate it now," Figgins said. "It's tough being in the season when you're on top because you want to look ahead. But I can sit back and appreciate the season we've had, to see how we start off 0-2 and everybody counted us out."

The fifth-year seniors often were asked what went so wrong to cause Georgia to fall in the SEC pecking order. LSU, Florida, Alabama and Auburn all won BCS national championships since Georgia's Sugar Bowl win over Hawaii. The Bulldogs couldn't even beat Central Florida in last season's Liberty Bowl.

Back in September, those seniors predicted that this Georgia team could rally like the 2007 Bulldogs, who suffered an embarrassing loss to Tennessee before a dodged bullet against Vanderbilt and emotional wins against Florida and Auburn propelled them on a late-season winning streak. It was reasonable, however, given Georgia's recent history, to wonder how strongly they felt about those predictions.

"After starting 0-2, there was no doubt with us, because we knew we had a special team," Troupe said. "We just knew that we had to stay together. You couldn't listen to the outside people. It started after the Colorado game (a 29-27 upset loss last season), people just kind of going on and on, but we knew we had to stay together, because at the end of the day we're the ones that are going to have to play."

Turning a corner?

Sure enough, they seem to be mounting a 2007-like streak.

Georgia beat a couple of the SEC's lesser-regarded clubs and built a big lead against Vanderbilt earlier this season before the Commodores nearly rallied past the Bulldogs in the closing seconds. Vandy blocked a Butler punt at Georgia's 24-yard line with 7 seconds to play -- Kenny Ladler might have returned the block for a touchdown had Butler not tracked him down with a game-saving tackle -- before the defense held with two last-gasp plays to protect Georgia's 33-28 victory.

The Bulldogs trailed Florida 17-3 before fourth-down touchdown catches by Tavarres King and Michael Bennett sparked Georgia to a 24-20 victory against a Gators program that had beaten Georgia each year since the 2007 game in Jacksonville.

Last weekend, Georgia buried the memory of an unsightly 2010 loss to Auburn by destroying the Tigers 45-7, led by quarterback Aaron Murray, who was Auburn's whipping boy last season.

The big difference from 2007, however, is that these Bulldogs still control their fate in the conference race.

Because of a head-to-head loss to Tennessee in 2007, Georgia was forced to watch scoreboards and hope for the Volunteers to lose in order to reach Atlanta. This season's Bulldogs need only to defeat slumping Kentucky to punch their ticket.

During the early part of their careers, playing for the league title was a goal Georgia's seniors never doubted they would reach. But the rocky path they traversed just to have the opportunity now in front of them makes this weekend's game that much more meaningful.

"It's been a special ride here," Butler said. "I really wouldn't have my senior year go any different way. If you would have asked me when I first got here if my Senior Day game was going to be for an SEC East title, I couldn't have thought of anything better. It's going to be a great opportunity on Saturday and we're all really excited."

Now they simply need to win.

David Ching covers University of Georgia sports for DawgNation. He can be reached at davidchingespn@gmail.com.