ATHENS, Ga. — Maybe the Southeastern Conference championship isn’t the foregone conclusion everybody has presumed. Georgia just might be evolving into the conference’s biggest (and most costly) nightmare.
The Bulldogs have been largely dismissed as overrated during a winning streak against less-than-stellar opponents, and Saturday’s thorough undressing of 24th-ranked Auburn probably won’t change a lot of minds.
But if you’re paying attention, Georgia is developing into a team that shouldn’t be taken for granted. Bulldogs fans in Sanford Stadium seemed to have found the faith that had faded since the end of 2007.
“It’s started to get that feeling again where people are starting to believe and we’re starting to get a little better notoriety that maybe this is the Georgia of old,” said Bulldogs senior tight end Aron White. “That’s what we’ve been fighting for, that respect.”
The No. 14 Bulldogs have to win one more game at home against a bad Kentucky team next week to earn its first trip to the SEC Championship game since 2005. If they play half as well as they did Saturday between the hedges in the Deep South’s oldest rivalry, the East is as good as won by a team that started the season 0-2.
Saturday’s performance was perhaps the best all-around effort by Georgia since the closing stretch of the 2007 season when the Bulldogs finished No. 2 in the national polls. The folks who filled Sanford certainly hadn’t seen a show like this since the famous “blackout” game that year when the Bulldogs buried Auburn in a second-half beatdown.
“I can’t think of another game in this stadium where we played better offensively, defensively and special teams,” Georgia head coach Mark Richt said. “It was definitely one of the top five or so games since I’ve been here.”
With the offense and defense hammering the Tigers in rolling up a 35-7 halftime lead, it was without a doubt the loudest its been between the hedges since that 2007 night. After safety Bacarri Rambo picked off an Auburn pass and weaved through a gauntlet of bodies for Georgia’s second touchdown in less than a minute in the second quarter, the decibel level hit ear-splitting.
“I haven’t heard a stadium erupt like that in a long time,” White said.
“Tennessee is the loudest stadium I’ve ever been in and I thought we were in Tennessee it was so loud,” Rambo said.
Critics will harp on Georgia’s soft schedule since losing the first two games against ranked teams. There were plenty of raised eyebrows when the Vegas oddsmakers set the Bulldogs as 13-point favorites over the Tigers. By halftime, it was clear that the bookies actually undersold Georgia, which claimed its first victory over a ranked foe since 2009 against Georgia Tech.
People will look back at the two fourth-down touchdowns in the comeback against Florida three weeks ago as a turning point, and you can’t argue the significance of those clutch plays against a longtime nemesis.
But if the Bulldogs keep improving like this, they might look back at that New Mexico State rout as a the first major building block to its newfound strut. Playing without its top four rushing options because of discipline or injury, the Bulldogs were forced to try new things offensively and scored 42 points in the second quarter.
In the past two romps, 13 different Bulldogs have scored and only one player (receiver Michael Bennett) has reached the end zone twice. After so much reliance on playmakers like A.J. Green in recent years, the Bulldogs offense is finally operating like a machine.
“We’re doing a great job of spreading it out and really keeping defenses honest because they don’t know who is going to get the ball,” said sophomore quarterback Aaron Murray. “It makes my job easier because people can’t just focus on one guy.”
The spread-the-wealth concept seems to have sparked an epiphany for Georgia’s game-planners. For the first time since Mike Bobo took over the play-calling in 2006, there seems to be more of a “system” to the offense instead of a just a bunch of disjointed plays.
Murray has settled into a rhythm that suits him perfectly.
With a mixture of shorter routes, back-shoulder throws and a few deep balls mixed in, he surpassed Matthew Stafford’s 2008 record for single-season touchdown passes with his 27 scoring strikes.
Murray was so efficient in the first half (13 for 16 for 216 yards and four touchdowns) that he only needed to throw the ball twice in the second half as Georgia dominated the time of possession (21:48) by rushing 33 times for 194 yards in Vince Dooley-era style.
“We ran the ball well when everybody in the stadium knew we were going to run the ball,” said Richt.
As good as the offense was, the defense was better. Auburn drove 76 yards on its opening drive to score on a trick play.
The rest of the first half the Tigers gained 13 yards on 20 plays and the game was essentially over.
“Short of the Sugar Bowl against Hawaii my true freshman year, I can’t say we’ve played a more complete game,” White said. “The way that we won really says something. It was a dominating win.”
Comparisons to that 2007 season are obvious. Except this Georgia team has a chance to go to the SEC title game and perhaps shock the nation against the presumptive best team.
Count Auburn quarterback Clint Moseley – who’s faced both Louisiana State University and Georgia – as a believer that the Bulldogs shouldn’t be counted out.
“Both teams know how to play defense,” Moseley said. “I don’t want to cause anything by making a prediction but it will be a great game.”
The odds of anyone thinking that a few weeks ago would have been astronomical.
Georgia’s evolution the next two weeks might shrink that doubt and the betting line even further.