ATHENS – Teams like Georgia don’t put teams like Buffalo on the schedule to build character. Teams like Buffalo are put on the schedule because they’re perceived as safe, possibly even a punchline. Georgia was willing to pay the opponent $975,000 because that’s how much it takes now to find a school willing to suffer public humiliation and say, “Fine, hit me with that two-by-four. Just make sure our hotel has decent pillows.”
Something went wrong Saturday. Georgia paid for the entertainment, maybe a little exercise, but the expected embarrassment was closer to home. That might seem harsh given the Sanford Stadium scoreboard had a distinct tilt at the end: 45-23. But it shouldn’t be considered nearly satisfying, not for a program that went into the day with a preseason No. 6 ranking and aspires to something greater than just outlasting South Carolina in the SEC East Division.
Great teams don’t have first games like this. Great defenses don’t allow touchdown drives of 75, 94 and 75 yards to an opponent that went 5-19 over the past two years and was shut out twice by Temple. Top teams from the SEC shouldn’t allow a projected fifth-place team from the Mid-American Conference East 243 yards in the first half. The Bulldogs, a 37½-point favorite, led only 24-16 after two quarters — that because of a 100-yard kickoff return by freshman Todd Gurley, a gift goal following a blocked punt and a missed Buffalo extra point.
Mark Richt is good in math. “If not for that, we’re losing at halftime.”
The defensive front got pushed around. (Buffalo rushed for 199 yards, including 147 in the first half.) Quarterback Aaron Murray frequently was off target. (Even Richt took a rare public shot at a player, referencing Murray’s overthrow to Tavarres King, saying: “He’s a veteran. You get a guy open like that on a post [pattern], you have to hit it.”)
Only Gurley and Georgia’s wide receivers were above criticism. Gurley was above everybody, actually. He had the kickoff return for the touchdown, two other scores on runs of 10 and 55 yards and he rushed for 100 yards on only eight carries in his debut.
But most Georgia players often looked like their heads were somewhere else, maybe Columbia, Mo., where the Dogs open conference play next week.
“Even the coaches had issues,” Richt said. He referenced plays when Georgia had 10 and 12 players on the field.
Was this an early hiccup? Or have we been duped again?
Nothing that occurred Saturday made you think this team is special. Actually, this was closer to a disturbing reminder of last season’s opener against Boise State in the Georgia Dome. The Dogs looked shockingly unprepared, unfocused and sloppy.
“I felt like garbage at halftime,” nose guard John Jenkins said.
“It wasn’t pretty,” Richt said. “I wasn’t thrilled with the way we played. We missed some early shots, offensively. We gave up some big plays.
“Am I concerned about it? Yeah. If we don’t play better than that next week, we’re going to come home sad.”
Defensive coordinator Todd Grantham was understandably animated on the sideline, and certainly at halftime with his players. His vaunted defense was missing five starters because of suspensions and injuries, but even he acknowledged, “That’s no excuse.” And he was right. Missing key players in the secondary doesn’t excuse the play of the defensive front.
“Play better,” he responded when asked what he told his players at intermission.
When asked if he delivered the message to the players that calmly, he said: “Not really. No. I don’t think you can [write] everything. I had some adjectives in there.”
Georgia carried its highest preseason ranking since 2008, when it was No. 1. The 92,000 fans who showed up expected more. They booed loudly in the first half. Thousands left at halftime. Thousands more left in the third quarter. The weather was humid, and the performance wasn’t worth sticking around for.
“If we wanted this to be a cakewalk, we should’ve came out and done a better job,” defensive end Abry Jones said.
Sometimes you don’t get what you pay for.
By Jeff Schultz
Some selections from the jukebox