The Dawgs are back.
Much work remains to be done, but Georgia stands much closer to returning to the nation’s elite than it has since 2008. That’s true even in the aftermath of LSU’s 42-10 mauling of the Bulldogs in Saturday’s SEC championship game.
One of the greatest benefits of playing in the best football conference in America is that you get to measure yourself against the very best teams in America. If you can beat the best team in the SEC, you can beat anybody.
Georgia took that measurement on Saturday and came up woefully short. But the gap has narrowed in just a year.
Last November, Georgia faced soon-to-be national champion Auburn, and lost, 49-31. That game carried an entirely different vibe.
Auburn took the opening kickoff and drove to a touchdown in less than 2 1/2 minutes. Properly lulled into a sense of security, Auburn then let Georgia take a 21-7 lead before the first quarter had ended.
From there, Auburn marched at will, scoring two touchdowns in each of the final three quarters, rolling up 463 yards of offense, and looking absolutely unstoppable.
A year later, Georgia’s defense stopped LSU cold, albeit for a half. No one has mentioned the last time that the nation’s top-ranked team went an entire half without recording a first down, but it surely occurred in the days of leather helmets and shin-length slacks.
Yet that’s what the Georgia defense did. Had the “G” on the helmets been a “C,” these guys might have been mistaken for the 1985 Chicago Bears.
But LSU is one magnificent football team. Playing them is like cuddling with a boa constrictor. At first it’s not that bad; but the longer you remain engaged, the more uncomfortable the situation becomes.
Until, finally, LSU snaps you. Just as they broke Arkansas a week ago, they broke Georgia’s will with a flurry of action surrounding the half.
For all of Georgia’s good work, for all its stout defense and daring (an onside kickoff!), Georgia never really cashed in. It wasted two first-quarter touchdown chances with dropped passes. Then the Dawgs allowed the notorious Tyrann Mathieu to return a punt for a touchdown.
What could have been a 21-0 halftime lead was only 10-7. Would those three plays have changed the outcome?
Doubtful. In the most lopsided game in NFL history, the Bears beat the Redskins in the 1940 championship game, 73-0. Chicago’s “Bullet Bill” Osmanski ran 68 yards for a touchdown on the game’s second play.
But quarterback Sammy Baugh led the Redskins right back down the field. From the Bears’ 26-yard line, he threw a sure touchdown pass to right end Charley Malone, who promptly dropped the pass.
When asked after the game if that dropped pass made a difference, Baugh replied, “Sure. The final score would have been 73-7.”
Make no mistake: LSU would have won this game regardless. They squeeze until their opponent cracks. When Georgia opened the second half with a fumble on its own 26-yard line (recovered by Mathieu) and then surrendered a 47-yard punt return to its own 17 (Mathieu again!) that was the ballgame.
Those in the Georgia Dome could feel all the excitement, the enthusiasm, the support and confidence that had buoyed Georgia evaporate. The shock was swift, complete, and fatal.
But in the grand scheme of things, this game became part of the process of climbing back into national prominence. Georgia found itself back on the big stage and enjoyed the spotlight.
“I think when you come here and experience it, you want more of it,” quarterback Aaron Murray told Chris White of the Athens Banner-Herald. “I know our guys are going to be hungry and want to continue working hard.”
“I think we have got a very good, young nucleus of players that got a lot of experience this year that is certainly going to benefit them in the future,” offensive coordinator Mike Bobo told White. “I’m excited about the future.”
“For 30 minutes, we played as good as anybody in the country, and we were winning,” defensive coordinator Todd Grantham told White. “But we didn’t finish it. You’ve got to ask what we can do to correct it. And if you do that with a young team, I think you’ve got a chance to get back here and win it.”