ATHENS, Ga. — It will be Jeff Owens’ second shot at his final home game.
A year ago, Owens participated in Georgia’s senior day festivities, strolling on to the field to the cheers of the crowd, thinking he might never play another game at Sanford Stadium.
A knee injury cost Owens nearly all of the 2008 season, but after mulling his future, he decided to return to Georgia for a second crack at a successful senior season and another trip to midfield for senior day.
It’s a trip he’ll make tonight along with 22 other Georgia seniors as the Bulldogs wrap up their 2009 home schedule against Kentucky with a game that means much more in terms of emotion than it will in the standings.
“It’s going to be a lot of emotion,” Owens said. “It’s going to be different. You never think this is going to come to an end, but it’s coming up real soon. So there’ll be a lot of emotion going through my mind just knowing that it’s going to be my last time ever playing at Sanford Stadium.”
For Owens, his career in Athens has been largely a successful one. The same is true for his teammate on the defensive line, Geno Atkins. But while Owens and Atkins will likely be playing on Sundays next season in the NFL, most of Georgia’s departing seniors have just three games left in their careers, and that’s what will make tonight’s contest special.
When Owens decided to return for another season, he did so with the dream of helping lead Georgia to a national title. That dream has long since dissipated, with the Bulldogs suffering through the most tumultuous season of Mark Richt’s career.
Quarterback Joe Cox didn’t know if his fifth season in Athens would come with any playing time, but when Matthew Stafford departed for the NFL, the starting job fell to Cox, and he has been the unquestioned leader of Georgia’s offense ever since. The problem, however, is that while Cox finally got his turn as the starter, the results haven’t met his expectations.
This year’s senior class is guaranteed to be the first to leave Georgia with fewer than 40 career wins under Richt, regardless of what happens tonight. But with the level of emotion that will be involved with playing their final game in front of the home fans, Bryan Evans said those lofty goals have been reduced to simple hopes for what remains of their dwindling careers.
“Just going out 9-4 and having a chance to go to one of these Outback Bowls, Cotton Bowls, something on that kind of a level, that’s what we’re looking forward to now,” Evans said. “Other than that, there’s nothing we can really do other than just win our games and just try to keep it going for next season. Hopefully they can take this momentum of our last four or five games winning and take that forward just like we did in ’07.”
That’s the legacy Evans hopes his class can leave. In 2006, Georgia suffered through another difficult season, but that team finished strong, winning its final three games, all against ranked opponents, to secure a nine-win campaign. A year later, the Bulldogs rode that momentum to an 11-2 season and the No. 2 ranking in the final coaches’ poll.
Owens doesn’t know what the remainder of this season will bring, but he does know that there is still hope for leaving a winner.
“People wrote us off early on in the season, and now we’re bouncing back,” Owens said. “We’ll finish these last few games up strong, and we’ll be the Cinderella team of the SEC.”
Whether this year’s Georgia team is remembered as a late-season Cinderella or the spark that ignited a resurgence in 2010, Cox said the important thing is that fans remember this year’s senior class as a team that didn’t give up, despite a turbulent season.
A win over Kentucky tonight won’t necessarily change the impact this class had, he said, but it is another chance to prove that their record doesn’t define their legacy.
“I just want to finish up this season strong and have something to be proud of,” Cox said. “There’s a lot of things that we wish we could have done better. But we know what type of team we can be, and what’s in the past is in the past.
“All we can worry about is how we finish these last few games, and we’ve made some good steps toward how we want to finish. Now it’s just a matter of keeping it going.”