ATHENS, Ga. — Contrary to what it might sound like around water coolers or in fanatic chat rooms, the mood in and around the Georgia football program has not reached funereal.
Students were frolicking about a sunny campus between classes Tuesday and football players were back at work preparing for another major test. Nobody was hanging their head and resigned to failure because the Bulldogs came up just short against an equally-talented opponent at Clemson late Saturday night.
“Right now, really all of our dreams are still there,” senior quarterback Aaron Murray said. “We’ve yet to play an SEC game. We played a heckuva game against a top team. Like I said, our dreams of our first goal of getting to Atlanta is still right there. We’ve just got to make our improvements and get better each week. And it starts this week with South Carolina.”
In an era when everything seems absolute, some critics and fans have been quick to write off the Bulldogs after an intense 38-35 defeat to the Tigers. Georgia dropped from fifth to No. 11 in the AP ranking, while the Tigers rose four spots to No. 4. The game was so good that ESPN hasn’t stopped replaying it every night since.
With No. 6 South Carolina looming Saturday afternoon in the Southeastern Conference opener, some people are already fretting about the possibility of being 0-2. The Bulldogs proved two years ago after opening losses to Boise State and South Carolina that even that isn’t a death sentence for a football season as Georgia won the next 10 games to reach the SEC title game.
“It is a long season,” Murray said. “Especially two years ago when we went 0-2. Not saying that’s going to happen, just saying anything can happen – especially in the SEC – in order to get back to Atlanta.”
TRUTH IS, the Clemson game didn’t really change anything from the Bulldogs perspective. As challenging and entertaining as Saturday night’s shootout was, this week has always been the more critical matchup circled on the calendar. And even losing to the Gamecocks doesn’t necessarily spell ultimate doom.
“It’s no fun to lose, and it’s no fun to lose early,” coach Mark Richt said. “With the type of schedule that we have, there’s a risk of that. That’s football, and that’s the way it is. We’d prefer not to be sitting like we were a couple years ago after Boise State and South Carolina. We’re going to do our best not to be in that position, but the goal is to win the SEC Eastern Division. Obviously everyone is in really good shape to do that across the league. Vanderbilt’s the only team that has a loss – a crossover loss. Everyone in the East still has control of their own destiny at this point, and that’s really all you can hope for.”
Winning Saturday doesn’t guarantee anything – as South Carolina has painfully learned each of the past two seasons. But losing is not a palatable option for a group of Bulldogs starved for victory in this border series. Aside from a few players like redshirt seniors Arthur Lynch and Rantavious Wooten – who both suited up as true freshmen against the Gamecocks before sitting out later seasons – nobody else has experienced victory against South Carolina.
“It stinks that we haven’t beaten them, especially this senior class has yet to win a game against South Carolina,” Murray said. “So hopefully we can change that this weekend. This is a brand new team and we’ll have to put what happened the last three years behind us.”
Even the younger players feel that hunger to rewrite the narrative against the Gamecocks and Steve Spurrier.
“I feel like South Carolina feels like they have our number,” said receiver Justin Scott-Wesley, a red-shirt sophomore. “It’s a big goal for us to beat South Carolina because they’re a great team and we haven’t beaten them.”
THE BIGGEST CONCERN coming out of the Clemson loss was pass protection – especially with a defensive beast like Jadeveon Clowney looming off the left end where the Bulldogs struggled against the Tigers. Richt said left tackle Kenarious Gates has the talent and experience to deal with the Gamecocks’ standout, but added that there are a lot of options in the game plan to try to minimize Clowney’s impact.
“Every snap is a battle,” Richt said. “You’re going to win some and lose some.”
Aside from the sacks and a slew of debilitating penalties that snuffed off several promising drives, the Bulldogs offense didn’t exactly roll over in defeat with 545 total yards against the Tigers. And the defense gets back some key players, including Josh Harvey-Clemons.
So there’s no need to bury the Bulldogs just yet. Even if this goes wrong for them between the hedges Saturday, no team knows better what can be accomplished with one foot in the football grave.
“We don’t want to go down 0-2; that’s not a good position to be in,” Scott-Wesley said. “But if worse comes to worse and it happens, we know that we can bounce back. We have the talent, we have the leadership and we have the coaching to win 10 straight and get back to where we want to be.
“We know the road to the national championship always has to go through the SEC Championship. Our dream is not dead. Our goal is still in front of us.”