Will the Bulldogs black out the Tigers?

What does Coach Richt have planned for this week....dark helmets again?

What does Coach Richt have planned for this week....dark helmets again?

By: Kevin Strickland

Mark Richt knows what’s wrong with the Georgia Bulldogs.

He knows why the ‘Dogs are 5-4 and in jeopardy of missing a bowl trip for the first time in eight years.

Richt has figured out why his team has fallen off the SEC East radar.

It’s not the schizophrenic offense that was able to torch Arkansas for 52 points but could only scrounge up 19 against Tennessee and 10 at Oklahoma State.

It’s not the erratic defense that allowed 37 to South Carolina, 41 to Arkansas, 41 to Florida and 45 to Tennessee.

Nope. It’s choreography and costuming that are the problem for his Bulldog team.

It all goes back to 2007. Desperately needing a spark to help break up a Florida stranglehold on Georgia’s series against the Gators (Florida had won 15 of the last 17), the staid Richt instructed his players to get an excessive celebration penalty after their first score.

The entire team rushed the field, danced like nobody was watching, earned the flag and went on to a 42-30 win.

Two weeks later, Richt and his Georgia team danced again, this time on the sidelines. As the stadium speakers blared Crank Dat (Superman) by Souja Boy, the team shook its collective Bulldog butt enroute to a 45-20 thrashing of Auburn. Even CBS announcer Verne Lundquist got into the act, captured on camera doing his version of the dance in the booth, a freakishly grotesque rendition that most resembled the Caddyshack gopher being hit with a taser.

Not only did the Bulldogs boogie, but they turned out in black jerseys for the first time ever, contributing to a blackout theme that saw most Bulldog fans also wearing black instead of the traditional red.

The fashion statement translated to the field as the Bulldogs surged toward the top of the 2007 rankings.

Georgia finished 11-2, exorcised the Florida demons and made a legitimate case for inclusion in the national championship discussion.

The problem for the Bulldogs was that Tennessee, one of two teams to knock off the Bulldogs that season, earned the SEC East title and berth in the championship game.

Still, Richt learned from the experience. He learned that one of the most critical components to game preparation was choreography and fashion.

“I think I’ve learned that it’s about 50-50,” Richt said in 2008 of the importance of energy and scheme. “You better do a good job fundamentally and scheme-wise, but you need to try to find a way to add energy.”

Richt’s method of adding energy? New clothes. He gave up playcalling duties in 2006 in order to focus more on gauging his team’s emotional level.

“I think it’s mart of Mark growing as a coach,” UGA athletic director Damon Evans said of Richt’s new concentration on intangibles. “I think Mark has grown every single year as a coach and gotten better and better. We all learn new things.”

Richt called on the black jerseys for a Sugar Bowl game against Hawaii, and the Bulldogs annihilated the Warriors.

Forget the shoes, it’s got to be the shirts.

When the Bulldogs faced Alabama in 2008, Richt returned the well and trotted out the black jerseys again.

One Alabama coach famously riffed that they were dressed in black for a funeral. Their own.

And so it was. Alabama buried the Bulldogs and mauled the black jersey mystique.

Later in the season, Florida exacted 49-10 revenge for the dancing of 2007.

Mystified, Richt tried to figure out what went wrong.  Why hadn’t the black jersey strategy worked? He had to be able to figure out how to successfully accessorize in 2009 or half of his coaching strategy would be for naught.

The black jersey failure so puzzled Richt so he consulted with famous fashion designer Vera Wang.

“Jerseys are so 2008, darling,” Wang said. “Hats are where it’s at in 2009!”

Perfect, Richt thought to himself as he sat down at the drawing board and crafted the next fashion statement for his team.

For Florida this season, the Bulldogs donned black helmets for the first time ever. Richt joyfully anticipated a cathartic win over the hated Gators.

A 41-17 thrashing later, Richt was despondent.

The Bulldog fanbase, which two years earlier had considered electing him emperor of the universe, had begun to lose faith. Rumors that Richt was on the hotseat and could be out of a job should his team fall to rival Auburn began to gather steam.

The Georgia coach wasn’t really concerned with his future, as he’d already started to build a Hollywood resume and could fall back on his acting career, but he didn’t want to leave his football hobby on a sour note.

Richt’s thespian efforts showed true range. He’d played everything from a  football coach to a football coach in a variety of projects.

He starred as Mark Richt in Damn Good Dog, a look at the life and times of Georgia mascot UGA in 2004.

He appeared in an episode of the short-lived television series Head Coach where he gave a compelling performance as Mark Richt.

Richt played a football coach which may or may not have been himself in the independent film Facing the Giants.

That led to a role in the Sandra Bullock vehicle The Blind Side where he was convincing as Georgia football coach Mark Richt.

Hollywood speculation had Richt as a hot commodity. He was up for the role of assistant coach Mark Richt in The Bobby Bowden Story. Industry experts said he was tailor made for the role.

He also auditioned for the part of assistant coach Mark Richt in the upcoming made-for-ESPN film Over My Dead Body: Bowden, Paterno and the Pursuit of Winningest Coach of All Time. His agent said he was dynamite and felt sure Richt would get a second read for the part.

Beyond that, Richt is reportedly under consideration for the lead role in the rumored CBS series CSI: Atlanta. According to speculation, all he would be required to do for the part was take his sunglasses off while making a clever quip. Chuck Amato is also rumored to be considered for the part, but Richt’s Georgia ties might give him the advantage there.

Will it be the Soljua Boy again or perhaps the Electric Slide

Will it be the Soljua Boy again or perhaps the Electric Slide

Richt’s status as a budding movie star led him to alternative methods to fix the ills that plagued his Georgia team. He called up Blind Side castmate Bullock to ask for advice.  She referred him to her pal and Georgia resident Ben Affleck who sent him to former flame Jennifer Lopez who made a call to Paula Abdul.

“Oh, honey,” Abdul gushed. “You are one good looking man. I give you a big YES on your tan alone.  It’s crazy! But if you want to really do something with this team you’ve got to get yourself back to what got you here. Return to your roots.

“Close your eyes, sugar britches,” Abdul purred. “Think back to 2007 when your Bulldogs were crowning with the glory, sweets. It wasn’t the jerseys, was it, baby love? Oh, those jerseys were a part of it, but what got you through Florida, my bronzed vision of southern goodliness?”

“I…I…I can’t remember,” Richt replied morosely.

Abdul began to hum, softly at first. At a whisper she started adding words.

“Soulja boy, off in dis oh,” she cooed softly.

“Yes, yes,” Richt sighed his head beginning to bob.

“Watch me crank it, watch me…” Abdul picked up the pace.

“WATCH ME ROLL!” Richt shouted.

In unison, Abdul and Richt finished the verse, she in California, he in Athens, both locking, popping and stepping.

“Watch me crank that SOULJA BOY, Watch me crank dat oh!”

“That’s it, that’s it,” Richt shouted joyously. It’s the DANCING we’ve been missing. Jerseys aren’t enough.

“Oh, Paula, how can I ever thank you enough.”

“Honey, in case you hadn’t noticed? I’m not exactly on the A-list these days. I’ll be in Athens on Tuesday. I’m bringing Debbie Allen with me. We gonna choreograph your Dawgs like some Laker Girls, baby!”

Richt wasn’t done. Dancing might be the ticket, but he couldn’t trust the outcome of a game against Auburn that might be the straw that broke the proverbial camel’s back to rest on busted moves alone.

He banked on his Hollywood wattage again and dialed up George Lucas. After 20 minutes of explaining who he was to the reclusive director he was rebuffed on his first request, but the Star Wars creator did grant the second item on Richt’s wish list. Undaunted, Richt kept dialing.

When his dealings were done, Richt sat back with a satisfied sigh.

When his Georgia Bulldogs take the field on Saturday they won’t be wearing black helmets. Nor will they don the traditional red helmets. No sir, this week, the Bulldogs will wear white helmets for the first time.

Not just any white. White Star Wars Stormtrooper helmets with the Georgia G affixed to the side.

Richt had hoped to wear the iconic black Darth Vader helmet for the game, but Lucas  denied his plea. So he did the next best thing. He called Mel Brooks.

When he takes his place on the sidelines, Richt will wear his traditional shades and headset. But instead of perfectly gelled hair, Richt will don the headgear worn by Dark Helmet in the Brooks classic Space Balls.

“It’s not Vader,” Richt told a few close associates, “but that black brim is sure to terrify the opposition.”

When Abdul and Allen arrived, Bulldog practices were closed. Unconfirmed rumor is the team will unveil an updated version of Michael Jackson’s timeless Thriller dance set to the thumping beat of the Black Eyed Peas Boom Boom Pow.

No word yet on whether Lundquist will appear as a featured performer.

Bulldog dance practice is expected to last through Friday afternoon.

At some point Saturday morning Richt will turn his attention to the gameplan. He figures that should be plenty of time.

His Bulldogs came to Auburn in 2006 with what he termed then as an “awful” game plan and spanked the Tigers out of the Top Ten 37-15.

“I was probably about as low as I have been all season,” Richt said in the aftermath of the 06 win. “I thought that was the worst thing I had ever seen. I was looking at how I could get (quarterback) Matthew Stafford some confidence and I thought this game plan was awful.”

For Auburn coach Gene Chizik, fashion choices and choreography aren’t on the agenda.

“Uniforms?” Chizik asked incredulously when the topic was broached at his weekly press conference. “What do I know about fashion? I don’t think about things like that. My wife lays my clothes out for me or else I might show up wearing one blue sock and one orange one. We’ll wear what we always wear.”

For the record, Chizik has a point. He stirred up message board speculation and a ton of Louisiana wailing earlier this season when he casually mentioned his Tigers would wear their road whites at LSU, apparently unaware that the Bayou Bengals elect to wear white jerseys at home.

“Besides, I do know some about the history here,” Chizik continued.  “Doug Barfield dragged up orange jerseys a couple of times. Maybe even against Georgia.

“What’s Barfield doing these days? Selling cars? Making tacos? Anybody know? And that Bowden guy, he put orange backgrounds on the numbers when he was coach. What happened to him? Whacked. That’s right. It wasn’t his record or his recruiting, it was those orange number shadows that got him.

“Mess with the uniforms and you get whacked around here. Auburn fans are like baseball purists. They want things to stay the same. I know enough not to mess with that.”

Later asked if Auburn planned a special dance routine like in Michael Jackson’s Bad or Beat It videos in order to intimidate the Bulldogs, he sighed with exasperation.

“Look, fellas, I’m not some George Astaire here. We’re not going to put on Batman underwear, we’re not doing the Watusi or the funky chicken. We’re going to Athens to play a football game. We’ll do our best to block, tackle and execute our game plan against a great, great football team.”

Around the room, notebooks snapped shut. “Boring,” one reporter sniffed to his compadre. “Come on, let’s go ask Nick Saban about some referees or the attack on Pearl Harbor. That ought to be good for a laugh.”

When it comes to fashion, the only color choice Chizik really needs to be concerned with is yellow.  His Tigers are among the most penalized teams in college football.

Auburn has given opponents 24 first downs via penalty, second most in the country. More than 10% of the first downs surrendered by the Auburn defense have come by way of the yellow hanky.

That’s not news to Georgia. The Bulldogs are even more heavily penalized than the Tigers and are, in fact, the most penalized team in the SEC.

It’s a battle to watch for certain, because penalties have played a significant part in two of Auburn’s three losses.

The Bulldogs are currently riding a three-game wining streak over the Tigers. Georgia hasn’t won four in a row in this, the oldest rivalry in the Deep South, since 1948 (part of an eight-game run that ended in 1953).

Both teams have questions that seem to have no answers. Both have displayed astonishing deficiencies on defense particularly. Both have exhibited offensive meltdowns.

Turnovers will be critical.

Auburn’s wins over West Virginia and Ole Miss (the primary difference between the disaster of 2008 and the encouragement of 2009) were both fueled by turnovers.  If the defense doesn’t force changes of possession in those games both could have ended differently. Turnovers contributed heavily to shocking point totals registered against the Tigers by dinky Ball State and tiny Furman.

Turnovers by Auburn also helped bury the Tigers against Arkansas.

Despite the two-game disparity in the record, the Tigers and Bulldogs are really fairly evenly matched.

Both have offenses that can catch fire and set off an explosion of points. Both teams have defenses that have been abused at times by the opposition.

Auburn’s defense, a squad which surrendered 30 to Ball State, 30 to West Virginia, 44 to Arkansas, 30 to Furman and 24 to Mississippi State, will have problems containing the Georgia offense.

When in doubt, it’s always prudent to look to the team with the better defense but given the performances by both Auburn and Georgia in 2009, that’s a difficult call.

That leaves the intangibles.

On Saturday Richt might just be battling for his job. The Tigers are merely jostling for exceeded expectations and a better bowl berth.

In another time and place Richt’s Bulldogs shot down Auburn in Auburn. That 2003 beating spurred a clandestine plane trip intended to depose then Tiger head coach Tommy Tuberville. The coup backfired, Tuberville survived and a year later embarked on the best season in the history of Auburn football.

Six years later, an Auburn win in Athens could spur similar stirrings in the Bulldog administration and put Richt’s long Athens tenure at risk.

Forget the stats, forget the trends, forget the dancing, the jerseys and the storm trooper helmets.

This is a game the Bulldogs need to win. It’s a game the Tigers want to win. In a showdown of unpredictable and mercurial teams need trumps want.

That’s why the Bulldogs will win a close one.

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