If the Georgia football team doesn't live up to expectations this year, don't blame Mark Richt.
Or Mike Bobo. Or Todd Grantham. Or anyone with the title of "coach" preceding their name.
No, if the notions of grandeur the Bulldogs have for their 2012 campaign turn out to be delusional, the players bear the brunt of the criticism. Before you start bashing me, though, I'll offer a word of advice: don't shoot the messenger.
I'm only the medium for one of the team's senior spokesmen, Christian Robinson. He was one of the leaders behind the "senior players only" meeting in February where this year's team motto — "Our Team. Our Time. No Regrets." — was first agreed upon. It is he who said the ball is in the player's court when it comes to how the 2012 campaign will be judged.
And it is he who said players rule the roost and shoulder responsibility if this year's national championship dreams are dashed.
"In no way is this a coaches' team," he said. "Yes, they are in charge of us and they're power figures, but Saturdays, it's about us."
Robinson believes the coaches should get players ready to implement the game plan. He knows how hard they work each week to get the team as prepared as possible for the next opponent. Once the game plan has been formulated and the contest has begun, the players are on the clock.
"You have 11 guys to 11 guys," the senior inside linebacker said. "So when we go out there, it's our job to make those plays. The coaches don't make those plays. ... I don't blame a coach. The responsibility of making the plays goes on the players, so I wouldn't blame a coach for anything."
For Robinson, the "Our Team" part of the motto comes from being in Athens since 2008. That squad began the season ranked No. 1 in every major preseason poll, and boasted Matthew Stafford, Knowshon Moreno and A.J. Green, among others. Talent, the 2008 Bulldogs had in abundance.
But that was about it, according to Robinson.
"We had a lot of great players, but it was just a lot of great players," he said.
Then, of course, came the next two seasons, a mediocre 8-5 year in 2009 followed by a dismal 6-7 showing in 2010. How that season concluded remains foremost in Robinson's mind. He doesn't want his senior class to go out in the same fashion as the 2010 edition did — by taking cues from coaching staff.
"We had a lot of good seniors, but I don't think it was their team, because when things really got rough, it was the coaches who were having to drive us to continue to push on," he said.
You won't find that mind-set this year. Robinson and every other player has committed the slogan to heart, holding other teammates accountable for their actions. Heck, even players on the scout team are doing it.
"Ben Reynolds was calling [people] out," Robinson said. "He's a big person for us on the scout offensive line. If they don't do well, we're not going to work hard, we're not going to go full-speed. That [thinking] has gone through the whole team. Kickers helping kickers. Linemen working together. It's really a family atmosphere where we care about the product we put out on the field."
Striking the right note is the key when it comes to taking a teammate to task. As Rantavious Wooten would attest, there is a time and place for everything.
"Sometimes you're tired in practice or in the weight room or you may not feel like doing something, you don't have to go to a guy and bash him in front of everybody and yell at him," the senior wide receiver said. "It's all about the way you approach someone. ... It doesn't have to be anything harsh, but you just have to give them the motivation, because sometimes things get tough and you need a word of encouragement."
Fellow wide receiver Justin Scott-Wesley echoed Wooten. But when pressed to name a specific player or incident where he has seen player-on-player accountability, he refused to bite.
"I don't want to call out no names," he said. "Some freshmen come in and they don't know the 'Georgia way,' so sometimes you've got to whip them in to shape, sitting them down and letting them know, 'Hey, you're not in high school anymore. You're not that guy. You're a small fish in a big pond right now. You're just a part, not the main piece.'"
Making sure other players do things the "Georgia way" is fine. But when the head coach has noticed players holding each other accountable, too, you know something is different than past years.
"I’ve seen more players, veteran players, say 'Get back in there and do it again," Richt said. "Or, 'Don’t you dare quit.' Or if you’re on the ground, 'You get up. You don’t loaf at Georgia.'...Or, 'Don’t lose contain,' or some kind of key coaching point where a guy makes the mistake, and they’re like, 'Naw, get back in there and do it again.' [I've] seen a lot of that."
Seeing it happen in practice is one thing. Seeing it happen in live games and translating into victories is another.
Victories by the bushel is the Bulldogs' objective this year, and why not?
When you enter the season as the No. 6 team in the nation, the possibilities are supposed to be limitless.
For their sake, the players are not trying to temper the lofty expectations. They know what this team is capable of.
Now they just have to go out and do it.
"We're in a position to win," Wooten said. "Everybody starts off 0-0, so if we don't go to the championship, it's on us."
That it is, Rantavious.
It is your team, and your time, after all.
— Ryan Black is a senior from Elberton majoring in newspapers and the lead football writer of The Red & Black