Originally created 10/14/02

Bulldogs are back in SEC contention



ATHENS, Ga. - Thanks largely to its success in close games this season, Georgia is being cast as a team that is destined for greatness.

The No. 5 Bulldogs have beaten Clemson, South Carolina, Alabama and Tennessee by an average of four points, lending a mystical sense of inevitability to their first 6-0 start since 1982.

Deft coaching decisions and dogged resolve - displayed most recently in Saturday's 18-13 victory over Tennessee - have put Georgia in excellent position to win its first Southeastern Conference title in 20 years.

"You can feel the fever that's coming around here," said senior offensive tackle Jon Stinchcomb, whose team overcame a fourth-quarter rally to claim its third straight win over the Volunteers. "It seems kind of strange that a little over a week ago, people were questioning whether we were the most overrated No. 6 team in the history of college football. Now, people are starting to believe that we come to play."

The Bulldogs (3-0 SEC), who have their highest ranking since 1983, haven't yet displayed across-the-board dominance characteristic of a Top 5 team. Yet, given the struggles of their remaining opponents, great play might not be essential for a great season.

Five of the Bulldogs' remaining six foes lost their last game, and Florida is in shambles after Saturday's 36-7 home trouncing at the hands of Louisiana State.

Vanderbilt, which visits Georgia on Saturday(12:30 p.m., JP TV), suffered a 21-20 loss to Middle Tennessee State; Kentucky, which plays host to the Bulldogs on Oct. 26, lost the magic that characterized its 4-0 start in a home defeat to South Carolina; Auburn didn't look like a contender in a 38-17 lashing at the hands of visiting Arkansas; and Georgia Tech is on the brink after an Oct. 5 loss to Wake Forest.

Mississippi is the only remaining opponent that isn't trying to recover from a jolting defeat.

The best news for the Bulldogs is Florida's rapid fall from the elite. The Gators (4-3, 2-2) have beaten Georgia 11 times in the past 12 years, but they've looked more inept than invincible lately after suffering back-to-back losses.

The Bulldogs should be favored against Florida on Nov. 2 in Jacksonville, Fla., and they'll be a good bet to win the other fives games as well.

For the first time in a long time, everything seems to be breaking Georgia's way. For Bulldogs fans, their first trip to the SEC title game in Atlanta seems as inevitable as another narrow victory.

"It's exciting to know that we've got a realistic shot at getting this thing done," said second-year head coach Mark Richt. "But on the other hand, you just can't get too carried away with anything other than what's happening this week. You'll find yourself feeling like some of the other people in the league right now."

WHAT'S LEFT?

Five of Georgia's six remaining regular-season opponents are trying to recover from demoralizing upset losses:

Vanderbilt (Saturday) Lost to Middle Tennessee State, 21-20

At Kentucky (Oct. 26) Lost to South Carolina, 16-12

Florida (Nov. 2, Jacksonville, Fla.) Lost to Louisiana State, 36-7

Mississippi (Nov. 9) Beat Arkansas State, 52-17

At Auburn (Nov. 16) Lost to Arkansas, 38-17

Georgia Tech (Nov. 30) Lost to Wake Forest, 24-21

Reach Larry Williams at (706) 823-3645 or larry.williams@augustachronicle.com