Originally created 10/02/00

Important games approaching



Their first Southeastern Conference game, a 21-10 disaster at South Carolina on Sept. 9, elicited a torrent of questions regarding their coach's future and their team's resolve.

Their second conference tilt, a 38-7 whitewashing of Arkansas, delivered an emphatic answer:

If Saturday's performance -- coupled with several other stirring developments across the SEC -- provided an accurate indicator, Georgia's Bulldogs might have a say in the conference championship race after all.

They got a little help from their foes on a day of dramatic conference upheaval, as the East went 1-5 against the West in six Saturday games pitting the SEC's two divisions.

South Carolina's magical journey was knocked off track by Alabama, Florida was thrashed at Mississippi State, and Tennessee lost to Louisiana State in an overtime beating on the bayou. Auburn blitzed Vanderbilt, and Mississippi thumped Kentucky.

So Georgia (3-1, 1-1 SEC), owner of the East's lone victory, finally found itself the benefactor of good fortune in the standings and on the field.

After team suspensions, the South Carolina debacle and season-ending injuries to two key defensive players, maybe the Bulldogs -- who rose from No. 25 to No. 19 in the Top 25 -- are beginning to get their share of breaks.

"We were going to try to climb back as fast as we could," Georgia coach Jim Donnan said of the race in the East. "You just never know what's happening in college football. With the equality that you see around the country, there are a lot of teams beating up on each other."

There was little doubt the Bulldogs beat up on the Razorbacks, but, with this week's monumental date with No. 21 Tennessee looming, Donnan was in no mood for reflection Sunday.

He said the game in Athens, Ga. (7 p.m., ESPN) will be the most important of his five-year tenure at Georgia. The Volunteers have won nine straight against the Bulldogs.

"We're not a team that has arrived based on that one game," he said. "Arkansas gave us some good opportunities and we took advantage of them. We need to talk about what we can do and don't worry about giving ourselves too much credit yet."

The Gamecocks (4-1, 2-1) were disappointed after the defeat that dropped them out of the Top 25 from No. 23, but losing a close game to Alabama left room for optimism.

Coach Lou Holtz said the Crimson Tide "played exceptionally well," so, given that the Gamecocks played on even terms throughout, the second-year coach has reason to be encouraged heading into this week's game at Kentucky (7:30 p.m., ESPN2).

"I wonder how we stayed that close when I watched them play," Holtz said. "We made some plays on our side of the ball as well -- we just didn't make enough of them. ... You take this game and you say we can play better."

Clemson, which bludgeoned Duke 52-22, can't play much better. The Tigers rose from No. 7 to No. 5, their highest ranking since 1988.

The Tigers, who improved to 5-0 for the first time since the 1987 season, haven't been ranked in the Associated Press Top 5 since they were ranked third on Sept. 12, 1998.

They fell to 12th after losing 24-21 to Florida State that season on the famous "punt-rooskie" play, in which Florida State's Leroy Butler scored on a fake punt to beat the Tigers at Death Valley.

Clemson's highest ranking before Sunday was in 1989, when the Tigers started 4-0 before losing at Duke.

They have outscored their first five opponents -- The Citadel, Missouri, Wake Forest, Virginia and Duke -- 238-48 and have yet to be tested.

"I thought Virginia was a good test, and even though Missouri didn't test us, they played Michigan State tough and look like they have a pretty good team," Bowden said after Saturday's victory "We haven't had a fourth-quarter game yet so we haven't been tested in that regard but I think we've played some pretty good teams."

The Tigers return home Saturday to face North Carolina State.

As for Georgia Tech, the Jackets won their first conference game of the season and have an open date this week. They play host to Wake Forest on Oct. 14.

NOTES:

Holtz expressed disappointment in the game's 7:30 start at Kentucky. "Playing Saturday night in front of a hostile crowd is not my ideal situation to respond," he said. ... Holtz said receiver Michael Ages (quadriceps) could miss time this week. Quarterback Phil Petty (sprained ankle) should be able to practice this week. ... Donnan said the Bulldogs suffered no injuries against Arkansas.

Staff Writer Tim Morse contributed to this report.

Reach Larry Williams at (706) 823-3645 or larrywill7@yahoo.com.