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SEC preview: Emotions fuel Bulldogs’ rise

Jeff Owens kept hearing about it when he was at home in Florida during the offseason. He was asked “a million-and-a-half times” about the incident in the Georgia-Florida football game — and sometimes the other person in the conversation had no idea Owens already knew everything about it.

“People who didn’t even know I played for Georgia (were like), ‘Did you all see the Georgia celebration?’ “ Owens said.

That moment, when Georgia exuberantly cleared its bench, changed the course of its season. It put the Bulldogs in the position they are in now: ranked No. 1 in the country, according to the preseason coaches poll.

Strangely enough, they’re not even picked first in their own division — that distinction belongs to Florida. So Georgia’s season once again is set up to be defined by how it plays in the game formerly known as the World’s Largest Outdoor Cocktail Party.

Georgia has been here before, such as 2004, when it began the year ranked third in the nation. What is different this time around is the energy level, as shown by last year’s seminal moment, which was ordered up by Mark Richt, its formerly stoic and reserved coach. And “that Richt” is a thing of the past.

It happened about halfway through last season. Richt had given up play-calling duties in the offseason, but it took a while for him to realize he was “a little more free to let my emotions go.”

A humiliating 35-14 loss at Tennessee became the launching point. Richt recalled looking at his team and waiting for a player or assistant coach to rise up and start barking. No one did.

“I was getting kind of mad at them until I looked in the mirror and realized that they were basically reflecting me,” Richt said. “I said, something’s got to change. I knew it had to start with me.”

So Richt got going. Three weeks later his team beat Florida, spurred on by the double 15-yard penalties that resulted from Richt’s order to celebrate after the Bulldogs’ first touchdown.

That was a bit more than Richt wanted, and Gators coach Urban Meyer later wrote in a book that it would not be forgotten. Richt said he regrets the move and will not do it again. But the ends appear to have justified the means.

“We felt that we needed something, some kind of fuel just to get the guys on the right path,” Owens said. “That celebration helped us out. It didn’t help us win the football game. It gave guys motivation in order to work hard and get better.”

He also got a little more riled-up with officials. The old Richt said he was either too busy calling plays, or he figured arguments with officials would not do any good. He changed his mind on that too.

During one heated discussion, Richt said an official looked at him and said, “I thought you were a class act.”

“I AM a class act,” Richt yelled back.

The firebrand demeanor may seem out of character for Richt, but he claims to have always had a little bit of it in him. That won’t change this year, according to Richt, as long as it appears to still be working.

Reach Emerson at (803) 771-8676.