This season might still yield a third consecutive SEC East title, which would mark a first for the Georgia Bulldogs. Even if it does, the 2013 team will bear an asterisk in the form of a question mark. What if so many players hadn’t gotten hurt? Would Georgia have finished this drill in Pasadena?
“It’s human nature to wonder,” defensive end Ray Drew said Saturday, and there was a time when the BCS title game didn’t seem a bridge too far. That time faded as the leaves began to fall.
After beating LSU on Sept. 28, nothing the Bulldogs have done has been very good. On Saturday they spent the first half doing little against Appalachian State, an FCS opponent contracted for $400,000 to provide a homecoming W.
Georgia led 14-6 at halftime, having induced but one App State punt. The Mountaineers had driven within sight of four field goals. (One try was blocked, another missed.) A team that managed 223 yards in a game against Samford – not Stanford, Samford — amassed 194 yards in a half against Todd Grantham’s defense.
“We were ahead at the half,” coach Mark Richt said, “but maybe it didn’t feel like that to some people.”
The Bulldogs would win 45-6, a score skewed by the 16 fourth-quarter passes thrown by backup quarterback Hutson Mason. Still, this first half was another indication that, even had Georgia not lost its two best tailbacks and its four best receivers for significant stretches, the season in full wouldn’t have delivered on the promise of September.
An OK defensive team might win the national championship — Auburn did in 2010 — but a bad defensive team cannot. Georgia’s defense entered Saturday’s game ranked 85th in opposing passing efficiency, 88th in third-down conversion percentage and 106th in red zone D. The Bulldogs had induced seven turnovers through eight games — they registered two more in the second half Saturday — and were tied for 102nd in turnover margin.
After the LSU game, these foolish fingers suggested the Bulldogs’ offense might be so mighty as to render any defensive failings moot. But the offense sagged under the weight of injury, and the defense hasn’t risen to its moment. This remains a dangerous team — its talent makes it so — but it’s no longer an irresistible force.
Was it ever? Well, it scored 41 points against South Carolina and 44 against LSU. If we acknowledge that personnel losses changed the season, we must also note that both post-LSU losses could have been won.
The Bulldogs were within Chris Conley’s dropped two-point conversion of tying Missouri with 12 minutes remaining. The Tigers then lost quarterback James Franklin to a separated shoulder, and still they scored two touchdowns to clinch the road victory that rearranged the division. The Bulldogs led Vanderbilt 27-17 the next week and were outscored 17-0 in the fourth quarter.
Something similar almost happened last week. Georgia led Florida 23-3 at the half and had to hang on to win. We need to look back to the South Carolina game of Sept. 7 to find a truly comprehensive victory, which suggests that even at something approximating full strength these Bulldogs wouldn’t have gone 11-1. They’d have messed up somewhere.
Said Richt: “We have not been the team that lines up and rolls people. We haven’t been that consistent in our execution.”
Or in its thinking. No team that lost two defenders to ejections at Vandy should incur another targeting penalty, but safety Corey Moore, whose sack was the biggest play against Florida, launched himself at a receiver along the sideline and was justifiably ejected in the second quarter.
The way Georgia finished Saturday’s first half was likewise lamentable. Two false starts by tackle Kenarious Gates compromised a drive, and Rhett McGowan dropped what would have been a third-down conversion. When the Bulldogs appeared to force an App State punt from the 10 with five seconds remaining, linebacker Leonard Floyd was flagged for unsportsmanlike conduct.
Quarterback Aaron Murray: “Our biggest thing is that we’ve got to focus on every play.”
Good things could still happen, but nothing quite as good as September augured. Even if the Bulldogs play for the SEC title, we’ll wonder how much more could have been accomplished.
“We hang our hats on not having any regrets,” Drew said. “That was our slogan — ‘Our team, our time, no regrets’ … If we keep doing our jobs, we as players can sleep well at night.”
For Georgia players, there might be no regrets. For Georgia watchers, the questions will remain.