Estes: Gut-check time at UGA

MEMPHIS, Tenn. – Before a long-winded diagnosis of what ails Georgia’s team (and there is plenty to discuss), one observation on a rainy New Year’s morning: It’s amazing how important a game becomes after the fact.

The Bulldog Nation sure seems to care a lot more about the Liberty Bowl than it did 24 hours ago, doesn't it?

General responses have been angry, bitter. Others demand answers. I suppose that’s understandable. Losing a bowl game to a Conference USA team – even a good one that is based in a major city, has been given resources to compete and is directed by a proven coach – is an embarrassment for an SEC program of a certain stature.

But I honestly believed all along UCF would win this Liberty Bowl.

Why? It was clear the Knights wanted it more, and that includes their fans. Gold-and-black wasn’t quite as frequent as red in the stadium Friday, but UCF’s sections were boisterous, particularly during a lengthy touchdown march that won the game in the fourth quarter.

Meanwhile, why would UGA players care that much about this Liberty Bowl?

Did you?

Bowl ticket sales were awful at UGA. Bulldogs fans should be outnumbering Conference USA fans in a game like this by thousands, not hundreds.

But then again, Sanford Stadium was never completely packed this season, either. You could say it was the team’s performance influencing support in person, but that tends to become a chicken-or-the-egg argument.

It's too easy to take more shots at Mark Richt, calling the Liberty Bowl the worst loss of an dismal season, when that’s just not the case. The worse loss of the season, really, was in Columbia, S.C., because that triggered the exterior apathy, criticism and resentment that was quick to reappear and infect a once-promising team.

Don’t get me wrong. Georgia’s program definitely has issues that must be addressed, and they go far beyond fan support.

Other than the lasting impact of a losing record, this latest defeat should probably be considered as important now as it was before being played. What is much more significant is what happens now, and that's not a secret.

The feeling was best represented by a young man in the stands Friday. He held a sign that read “Isaiah Crowell: Choose Wisely” and featured two boxes, one checked for Georgia and one unchecked for Alabama.

Think about that. The one noticeable sign in the UGA section Friday was aimed at a high school prospect that hasn’t taken a snap in college or committed (much less signed) to even join the Bulldogs.

How are current players supposed to feel about that?

On the Crowell topic, I'm familiar with both teams on the checklist. And I’ve been asked a lot since I took this job about the differences in Nick Saban’s Alabama, which I covered from 2007 through the 2009 BCS title, to Mark Richt’s current Georgia program.

I’ve thought about this for a while and wanted to wait until a full season was complete to form a fair judgment. So here goes. My conclusion is the raw talent gap is actually not that large, but ...

First, there's the eye test. Overall, Alabama players look bigger and in far better condition. Richt addressed this with the recent strength and conditioning swap. And while some rolled their eyes at the shuffle of long-time employee Joe Tereshinski to head Dave Van Halanger’s former department, former players loved this move, because Joe T’s plan is to put his foot to some rears to find out who really wants to earn his way. Bravo. It needed to happen a while ago.

Second, and more important, football has just got to mean more.

Georgia's players need to take their commitment to the sport more seriously. They need to stop getting into silly off-the-field situations. They need to start showing up to watch more film on their own. There needs to be more leadership. There needs to be more accountability from actual players, not just the coaching staff. If you can't depend on a teammate to show up for an academic appointment under threat of suspension if he doesn't, how can you trust he'll make a key block when required?

Somewhere, this team lost its hunger. And in the coming months, returning players need to take this past season as a personal challenge to get it back. They need to realize that talent alone means little in the SEC and you must work for what you want. They need to start preparing with an edge about them, not just going through the motions, not just saying they want to get better but really doing it.

Georgia players also need to act like they've been there before. That includes jumping into the stands to celebrate a win at Kentucky, like they’d accomplished something when all they'd really done is match what should be the minimum standards of UGA's program.

There needs to be pride in those standards, if only because they’ve been earned through hard work and dedication. That way everyone trusts his teammate is ready for the fourth quarter and whatever adversity awaits, because of what they've been through together.

It shouldn’t take a speech from a former player (or even the promotion of the hard-nosed Tereshinski) to inspire and unite in such a way. Players should already have that mentality, because that's what is demanded of a championship team.

These statements do not hold true of everybody on Georgia's squad, of course. But the ones that do demonstrate these qualities need to begin demanding it more from others. Ones that still can’t get it, they need to be gone.

Turning more to the fan base, the Crimson Tide loves to throw out there is while other schools play football, “At Alabama, we live it.”

I found that to be 100 percent true at that school, and it's not all about tradition, which doesn’t guarantee future success anyway. The game just matters so much there, and that translates to the team on a daily basis.

There needs to be the same passion and faith at UGA, even when it's difficult. Actually, especially when it's difficult.

Whether or not you support Richt, if you're a true UGA fan, support the program in dark times. Those who want a "Dream Team" recruiting class but go off the deep end and want to suddenly fire coaches after one bad (yet ultimately meaningless) bowl game, remember that it can’t work both ways. Recruits are a lot more sensitive to this stuff than you might think.

Those guys are aware of the Internet. They see articles and comments on message boards and at the end of stories. I'd obviously want to try to gauge the mood of the program I'm devoting years to helping.

The best way to kill that "Dream" in February is to start ousting assistants -- much less the head coach -- right now.

After one season back in Athens, I honestly don't think Georgia’s program is that far gone. There is enough talent to build around immediately, proven coaches leading the way, and an impressive new athletics director who knows how to manage and provide all resources necessary to win big.

Positive energy is required to reverse the malaise. But momentum has to come from somewhere if UGA's team can't first find it on the field.

Those qualities listed above are enhanced when you have early success (See Auburn this year). And remember that UGA lost game one in 2009 and game two in 2010, and all of the above is difficult while playing from behind.

So let's just say it now: The Boise State opener in 2011 is the most significant football game Georgia football has faced in a very long time.

Inside and outside the program, the overall attitude must improve before and because of that key showdown in Atlanta. Unless it does, don't expect Georgia’s program to recover anytime soon.

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