This is the column that I didn’t think I would be writing six weeks ago, when Georgia fizzled and nearly self-destructed at Vanderbilt, and a five-game winning streak seemed like the furthest thing from Mark Richt’s mind.
This is the column that didn’t seem plausible three months ago when I looked up at the scoreboard and saw, “Boise State 35, Georgia 21” after looking down on the Georgia Dome field to see a Bulldogs team get beat physically by a Mountain West Conference team and play flat emotionally — the worst possible exacta for a hyped-up season opener.
This is the column that says Georgia can beat LSU.
This is not to diminish anything LSU has accomplished this season. How can one diminish an SEC team going 12-0? The Tigers have played and beaten seven teams that were ranked at the time they played. That includes No. 3 Oregon to start the season (40-27), No. 2 Alabama in Tuscaloosa (9-6 in overtime) and No. 3 Arkansas (41-17). LSU is as legitimate and proven as any No. 1 team that has come along in years.
Which doesn’t mean it can’t lose.
No. I’m not drunk on the Kool-Aid. Something changed in Athens. Maybe the 33-28 escape at Vanderbilt was a wake-up call. Maybe it was just a case of a young team slowly gaining confidence. At the very least, we know players reaffirmed that they believed in — and would follow — their head coach. Because a team doesn’t just rally from a 17-3 deficit to beat its nemesis (Florida), destroy Auburn 45-7 and spin a 10-game winning streak after a 0-2 start because it’s suddenly getting bounces.
After the body-slamming of Auburn, when it became clear the Dogs would win the SEC East, many felt they would have a “puncher’s chance” in the conference title game against the winner of the West, LSU or Alabama. But that short-changes Georgia.
When I hear puncher’s chance, I think George Foreman vs. Michael Moorer. In 1994, when Moorer was the heavyweight champion, he won nine straight rounds against the unranked 45-year-old Foreman. Then he got stupid. Foreman suckered him in. He landed a concrete right hand to Moorer’s porcelain chin. When Moorer looked up from the canvas, he saw little blue songbirds circling above him.
Three months after the loss to Boise State, the Bulldogs return to the Georgia Dome Saturday against LSU. They don’t need to rely on one lucky punch to win. They have become that good. They are playing with a rhythm, a confidence and an edge that we haven’t seen since 2007.
A year ago, when I wrote that Richt deserved to come back this season because of what he had accomplished in Athens, there was a backlash. Many fans wanted him fired. I wasn’t ready to make that leap. But neither did I share the confidence of Richt’s defenders, particularly after the season’s first two games. An unraveling seemed imminent. So did a job change. Clearly, that’s not happening now.
LSU is rolling. But so is Georgia. Aaron Murray is the best quarterback the LSU defense will face this season, and in the last four games he has completed 68 percent of his passes for 14 touchdowns and two interceptions. The offense is loaded with receivers: Orson Charles, Malcolm Mitchell, Tavarres King, et al. (Just when Georgia Tech figured it had everybody covered Saturday, a freshman, Chris Conley, popped open in the end zone. Chris Conley? He’s UGA’s sixth-leading receiver.)
The assumption here is that with Isaiah Crowell being held out Saturday with an ankle injury, he and Carlton Thomas (who had only a few carries against Tech) will be ready for LSU and provide balance to the offense.
Defensively, the Dogs get better by the week. They throttled the Tech’s option offense Saturday and held the Jackets to 10 points until a meaningless touchdown in the final minutes.
Boise State and South Carolina combined for eight offensive touchdowns in the first two games. In the 10 since, Georgia has allowed only 12 offensive touchdowns. That includes one or none in seven of the 10 games. This is the second-best defense LSU will face this season. They managed only three field goals (one in overtime) against the only opponent with a better one, Alabama.
Georgia doesn’t have a mere puncher’s chance in the SEC championship. Georgia has a legitimate chance. The team that will play in the Georgia Dome on Dec. 3 is not the same one that played there on Sept. 3.
Some things you just don’t see coming.
By Jeff Schultz