What seemed lost the morning of Oct. 7 has now been regained for the Georgia Bulldogs. After a 35-7 loss to rival South Carolina, the team believed that its SEC and national title hopes were dashed, but a month later that is not the case.
Since losing to the Gamecocks, the Bulldogs are 5-0 and the powerhouse of the SEC East with wins against rivals Florida and Auburn. During that stretch, they are scoring an average of 33 points per game while holding opponents to an average of 11 points per contest.
The win against the Auburn Tigers gave Georgia the SEC Eastern Division title and clinched a spot in the conference’s championship game. Georgia head coach Mark Richt has gone on record multiple times that his goal for the season was to win the division and get to championship game; after that, he believes everything will take care of itself.
However, this is a team that had national championship aspirations at the beginning of the season. Winning the conference championship would assure the Dawgs a spot in the Sugar Bowl but to get to the national championship, they needed to win all of their games or receive help.
By losing to conference rival South Carolina, Georgia took the route to the championship that required help and help they have received. The month of November has seen the nation’s top three teams at one time, Alabama, Kansas State and Oregon all lose. The losses by these three teams have catapulted the Bulldogs to the third spot in all three polls, one spot away from a berth in the BCS National Championship game.
As it currently stands, the Notre Dame Fighting Irish occupy the top spot in the polls followed by Alabama and Georgia. For Richt and company to make the title game, all they need to do is beat archrival Georgia Tech and then defeat the Crimson Tide in the Georgia Dome. This would set up a date in Miami with the Irish.
A matchup with Notre Dame is the most likely possibly, but another national championship game that may arise is a rematch with the Florida Gators. Florida is currently ranked right behind Georgia as the nation’s No. 4 team, two slots away from a spot in the title game. If Notre Dame was to fall to the USC Trojans, the SEC’s top three teams would slide up one spot in the poll. This would set up a No. 1 vs. No. 2 matchup in the SEC Championship between Alabama and Georgia. If Georgia defeats the Tide, Georgia would sit atop the polls and the Gators would seemingly be right behind in the No. 2 spot.
While there are numerous scenarios that could occur due to the chaos that is college football, the point to be taken from this is that Georgia controls its own destiny and is two wins away from a national championship appearance. Nearly two months ago, some were calling for Richt’s head and the nation believed that Georgia’s shot a national championship was gone. The stars have aligned for the Bulldogs since then, and it could not have happened at a better time for a team that is currently playing its best football.
Historically a team that has gotten stronger as the season progresses, the Bulldogs’ play of late has been due to another factor as well. This factor was a prominent senior calling the team out and demanding better play from his teammates.
“We’re playing too soft as a defense,” said safety Shawn Williams the Monday before the Florida game. “That goes for the D-line, linebackers, corners, safeties, everybody. We’re just not playing with the same attitude we were last year. I don’t know what it is.”
His comments charged up a defense that performed at a subpar level for the first half of the season and propelled it to the high level many expected of it. Since being called out by Williams, the team is allowing 120 rushing yards per game at a rate of 2.76 yards per carry. Before that, the defense was allowing 168 rushing yards per game at a rate of 4.05 yards per carry.
Though the difference in the numbers is staggering, perhaps the biggest change in Georgia’s defense has been a consistent effort. Before Williams’ rant, Georgia played sloppy first half football but would then get it together in the second half. That is no longer the case.
“I don’t think it was saving the season,” said Williams four weeks after ranting to reporters. “I just knew we could do it, so I just had to go out and do it.”
While Williams may not think his comments saved his team’s season, his coach recognized the effect William’s comments had on the team on his radio show days before the Georgia Tech game.
“I think Shawn’s comments certainly had a great effect on our football team,” said Richt on Monday. “It jolted guys a little bit. It got some guys mad, it got some guys hurt. But I think everybody understood Shawn’s motivation, which was to play the way they were supposed to play.”
All championship teams have a point where they believe they turned their season around and everything came together. For the Georgia Bulldogs, that point was just before the Florida game when one player voiced his displeasure. However, the team must recognize that there are a few more stops on its road to hoisting the Waterford crystal football. The Bulldogs need to sustain their high level of play for a bit longer.
Three teams sit ready to spoil the Bulldogs’ hopes of a title: Georgia Tech, Alabama and Notre Dame. Most will look past the Jackets, but Paul Johnson’s team features the nation’s third-best rushing offense. Georgia just gave up 302 yards to a triple-option offense similar to that of Tech’s last week and crazy things happen in rivalry games.
Alabama held the No. 1 spot in the polls for most of the season and pose perhaps a bigger threat than the Fighting Irish. Of course, Georgia will not look past the Crimson Tide. To defeat Nick Saban’s team, Georgia will need to play the best it has all season on both sides of the ball. Aaron Murray will need to prove he can win the big game and Jarvis Jones will need to live in Alabama’s backfield.
Georgia is two wins away from a national championship appearance and three wins away from their first title in 32 years. They still have improving to do, but for a team that seemed out of the title hunt, things couldn’t be better.