Georgia will pay its next opponent, North Texas, $975,000 to play a game in Athens on Saturday, which certainly suggests that the school’s “Mean Green” nickname is far more appropriate for the finance department than the football team.
Opponents such as North Texas aren’t scheduled to impress voters or computers; they’re scheduled for rest. So we’re probably not going to learn anything about the Bulldogs this game. But this game sets up Georgia nicely for what follows, and it’s possible the team could be in the early stages of another one of those improbable runs.
Remember two years ago? The Dogs lost their first two games to Boise State (ugly) and South Carolina (not quite as ugly), and the program seemed to be in a downward spiral. Then came the cleansing breath (59-0) against another store-bought opponent, Coastal Carolina, and the Dogs reeled off an unexpected 10 consecutive victories to win the SEC East Division and reach the conference championship game.
The backdrop this season is slightly different, but the potential of what’s ahead might be similar. After the close but not unexpected opening loss at Clemson, in which the Dogs were missing several players from the defense because of injuries and suspension, they rebounded impressively with a win over South Carolina. Then came an early bye week.
Georgia will be coming off a relative two weeks off when it plays probably its toughest remaining game against current-No. 6 LSU next week. The Tigers should beat Auburn on Saturday, but they certainly will play a more physical game, and they have not had a bye.
Here’s how the rest of Georgia’s schedule plays out. They should be significant favorites in three consecutive games — at Tennessee, at home against Missouri and at Vanderbilt. Then comes a well-timed bye before the Florida game. (The Gators also have a bye.) That will be followed by games against Appalachian State (home), Auburn (road) and Kentucky (home) before the annual meeting against Georgia Tech (road).
The thought of an 11-game winning streak might seem implausible. But is it really?
Georgia has one of the nation’s better offenses. That’s not going to change, assuming quarterback Aaron Murray and running back Todd Gurley stay upright. The defense is getting better, as evidenced by a goal-line stop on fourth down late in the South Carolina game.
“You have to dream big,” said Murray, who’s sitting on 99 career touchdown passes going into the North Texas game. “We have big goals here. But in order to reach that big goal you have to go step by step and reach the smaller goals along the way.”
Murray was one of the few optimists two years ago. After the 34-21 loss (and it wasn’t that close) to Boise State, he told coach Mark Richt, “We’re going to the SEC championship.” (I’m sure that was a welcome relief to Richt, whose projected destination by media and fans was closer to unemployment.)
The lessons of 2011 allowed many to process the opening loss to Clemson this season a little easier. When asked what he learned, Murray said, “That it’s a long season, no matter how the season starts. If you win games, things can change pretty fast. You’ve just got to keep grinding away, listening to the coaches, trusting them and believing in your ability and just keep working.”
Richt isn’t one for projecting beyond the next game. Most coaches aren’t. But he has a good feeling about this year’s team, and he should.
“We’ve talked a lot about getting better and about how good we can become,” he said. “That was one of my main discussions with the staff (Tuesday) morning. We’re improving, and part of the reason why is because our coaches are pushing them. I think guys probably sense, ‘Hey, I’ve got a chance to play, a chance to start, a chance to make a travel team.’ They’re playing hard. Because of that we’re improving as a team. The point I’m making is that we think we can become a really good team. We hate to put any kind of limit on what we can do.”
That’s about as close as Richt will ever come to smack talk.
Richt watched last week’s Alabama-Texas A&M game, both potential opponents in the conference title game for the SEC East winner. So did Murray. Both tried to watch as spectators, but found themselves analyzing things.
“I was watching what they do defensively and thinking in my mind, if we ever do play one of those teams, what could be successful,” Murray said. “I try to just sit back and enjoy games, but it’s hard. You’re always analyzing defenses. The curse of being a quarterback.”
If this plays out as Georgia hopes, consider it some early scouting.