(UPDATED: 8:30 p.m.)
ATHENS — So. How many points do you think Georgia will be favored by over LSU?
The unexpected metamorphosis of the Bulldogs from 0-2 and punch-drunk to 8-2 and potential conference finalist took another unexpected turn Saturday. They were dominant. They were smart and efficient and tough. They looked remarkably top-10ish. They won a conference game that mattered in a way we probably haven’t seen in Athens since 2007.
Georgia body-slammed Auburn 45-7.
As the university president, Michael Adams, neatly summarized, “That was the first time this year when we really ran over somebody. You never know when a team is going to grow up.”
Goodbye to the wonder years. If this performance was something nobody could have projected two months ago, consider that the SEC East title suddenly comes down to a simple and certainly probable two-word mandate: Beat Kentucky.
Beat Kentucky? That’s it?
The day started with South Carolina defeating Florida 17-12, which temporarily lifted the Gamecocks into a first-place tie with the Dogs. That was followed by this half-jab from Gamecocks coach Steve Spurrier: “We’ll see how Georgia plays when they know they have to win.”
We saw. The comment was a source of amusement for some Georgia players afterward. When asked if there was something he wanted to say to Spurrier, running back Carlton Thomas only smiled and said, “Congratulations on the win.”
Tight end Aron White was a little more expansive: “Coach Spurrier’s a great coach. But we’re not worried about him or what he’s saying. I couldn’t care less about South Carolina right now because we have a better record and we have a chance to go to the SEC [championship game].”
The Bulldogs reacted like you want a team to react. They punched Auburn in the mouth. They scored touchdowns on their first two possessions and three of their first four. They led at halftime 35-7. They cleared out the Auburn cheering section in the upper level of Sanford Stadium early.
Fans rocked Sanford Stadium like they hadn’t since maybe a win over Auburn in 2007. When Bacarri Rambo returned an interception 24 yards early in the second quarter, “It got so loud that I thought we were in Tennessee,” Rambo said.
The first seven wins proved showed something about character. The eighth win showed something about potential. The combined SEC record of the Dogs’ five conference wins was 5-24, but what happened against Auburn can’t be diminished. The Tigers aren’t the dominant bunch that won the BCS title last season, but they had a winning SEC record (4-2) and a ranking (24th AP, 20th BCS). They had beaten South Carolina (a big assist to Georgia’s resurgence).
The backdrop did not scream: easy win. The Dogs had lost five straight and 10 of 12 to ranked teams. They hadn’t won an SEC game of such significance at least since beating LSU 52-38 in Baton Rouge in 2008. A case could be made it actually was the Dogs’ biggest since the 2007, 45-20 win over Auburn (so long ago that the black jerseys were revered).
OK. This doesn’t ensure anything against LSU, should the Dogs make it the Georgia Dome. But the team that played Auburn didn’t nearly resemble the one that got blown out by Boise State, or tripped over itself at South Carolina, or looked unimpressive in wins over Mississippi and Vanderbilt.
The offense converted 12 of 15 third-down situations and shredded Auburn for five touchdowns and 528 yards. The defense held the Tigers to 195 net yards, including 51 rushing. Special teams — no mistakes.
“We started out struggling and going 0-2, but we’ve definitely been making baby steps,” quarterback Aaron Murray said. “This was the first time we put it all together.”
Murray was at the center of it all. He had four touchdown passes in the first half, giving him 27 this season, a school record. He completed 14-of-18 for 224 yards and even had a 13-yard scramble on third down. He looked as most projected at the outset of the season — like the SEC’s best quarterback.
This win was more than any Georgia fan could’ve hoped for, more than anybody could have expected. Teams want to peak at the right time, and this is it. Two months after the 0-2 start, the Dogs need only to do one thing: beat Kentucky.
The view has changed significantly.
By Jeff Schultz