ATHENS, Ga. - They had the lofty ranking, the unbeaten record, the fearsome defense. Still, there were nagging questions about the Georgia Bulldogs, a team that seemed content doing just enough to win.
Not this time.
With a near-perfect performance against defending Southeastern Conference champion LSU, the third-ranked Bulldogs silenced their critics and showed they are truly capable of challenging for the national title.
"I thought we could win the game," coach Mark Richt said, savoring a 45-16 victory over the Tigers on Saturday. "But not in that fashion."
Georgia (4-0, 2-0 SEC) struggled on offense in its two previous games, managing just three touchdowns in ugly wins over South Carolina and Marshall.
This performance was a thing of beauty.
The Bulldogs held off LSU's trademark blitzes, giving up only one sack and making the Tigers pay time and time again for single coverage. David Greene set a school record with five touchdown passes, including two apiece to Fred Gibson and Reggie Brown.
Even more astounding: Georgia's two freshman backs ran at will against the Tigers. Danny Ware found big holes or just ran over would-be tacklers on his way to 109 yards. Thomas Brown chipped in with 81 yards, including a huge fourth-down conversion after being hit initially in the backfield. They accounted for most of the Bulldogs' 221 yards on the ground.
"We ran the ball much better than I thought we could," Richt said, shaking his head.
It was a stunning turnaround from last year's SEC championship game, when LSU's defense manhandled the Bulldogs in a 34-13 victory. Greene was sacked five times and threw three interceptions, one that was returned for a touchdown.
To cope with LSU's pressure, Georgia focused on protecting the middle of the line and made the Tigers do most of their work on the outside. Greene also seemed more cognizant of the pass rush, rolling out occasionally to give his receivers more time to get open.
The receivers came through. Both of Reggie Brown's touchdown catches were things of beauty, the senior managing to catch the ball and get a toe down before tumbling out of bounds.
The 6-foot-4 Gibson used his height to ward off a defender on his first TD, then beat star cornerback Corey Webster for a score late in the third quarter that snuffed out any hopes of an LSU comeback.
"We have the players," Brown said. "When everything comes together like it did (Saturday), that's the result."
There were no doubts about Georgia's defense, which had a lapse late in the first half - giving up 10 points in the final 1:23 - but otherwise dominated the Tigers.
The quarterback duo of Marcus Randall and JaMarcus Russell spent most of the day on the run, trying to get away from David Pollack and Co. The Bulldogs had five sacks, plus countless times where they forced an errant pass or left the QB crumpled on the turf.
"That's what you always want to do," Pollack said. "If you ask any quarterback who's played the game, it's hard to pass when you've got guys in your face."
Pollack had plenty of help. All-SEC linebacker Odell Thurman returned from a three-game suspension and showed up everywhere (eight tackles, a sack and a fumble recovery). Safety Thomas Davis added two more big hits to his highlight film, forcing a pair of fumbles that led to Georgia touchdowns.
"We don't have just one person," Pollack said. "We've got so many people doing phenomenal things."
LSU (3-2, 1-2) was certainly impressed. The team that claimed the BCS portion of the national championship last season won't be repeating after its second loss in three weeks.
"They were moving faster than we were," said coach Nick Saban, who had a cut over his eye, the result of an inadvertent elbow from one of his assistants on the sideline. "Georgia is an older and more mature team. They were balanced on offense, and they kept us off balance."
The Tigers plunged 11 spots in The Associated Press rankings, barely staying in at No. 24.
Georgia is right in the mix, receiving a couple of first-place votes and holding its spot behind No. 1 Southern Cal and No. 2 Oklahoma.
Next up for the Bulldogs: another team that lost big on Saturday, No. 17 Tennessee, which was beaten 34-10 by sixth-ranked Auburn.
The Bulldogs know they can't afford to savor their masterpiece too long.
"The next game is even bigger because they're in our division," Greene said. "We're not going to be overconfident about it, that's for sure."
But they have a lot more reasons to feel good about themselves.
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