(UPDATED: 11 a.m. Sunday)
AUBURN, Ala. – This is the place where few expected Georgia would be after that ugly night in Columbia last month — not only winning games, but winning them impressively, humiliating an opponent on its home field. This is the place where many may have projected the Bulldogs to be before this season began, but certainly not since (because even Buffalo looked like a greater threat in the season opener than Auburn did Saturday night).
This is where Georgia is today: SEC East champions for the second straight season … and, yes, as improbable as it might once have seemed, a legitimate threat to beat Alabama in the Georgia Dome in three weeks.
The Bulldogs thoroughly dominated Auburn 38-0. Georgia fans chanted, “SEC, SEC” in the second half. They were easy to hear because because by then most of the Auburrn fans had left.
Maybe body-slamming Auburn no longer is considered a monumental achievement for an Auburn opponent. The Tigers, two years removed from the BCS title, suddenly look two levels removed from Division 1. They’re having their worst season (2-8, 0-7) in 60 years.
But this isn’t a one night aberration. Georgia (9-1) has won four straight since the loss to South Carolina. It has won the last three by a combined score of 92-19.
A touted defense that looked out of sync for much of the season has allowed just one touchdown and four field goals in the last 12 quarters. Aaron Murray, who had three first-half touchdowns against Auburn, doesn’t look anything like the quarterback who had three first-half interceptions against Florida.
The Dogs run the ball. They stop the run. They’re not committing turnovers or dumb penalties.
While Georgia is ascending, Alabama is sputtering (relatively speaking). The Crimson Tide was fortunate to escape Baton Rouge last week with a win, and was upset Saturday by conference newbie Texas A&M — in Tuscaloosa.
“It’s been unbelievable,” said Murray, who celebrated his 22nd birthday. “Most teams might fold [after the loss to South Carolina] and think, ‘They’re going to win all of the rest of their games and our chances of making the SEC are slim.’ But we know anybody can win any week in SEC. South Carolina lost a couple, we beat Florida and now we’re heading back to Atlanta.”
Murray, who has been a different quarterback since Florida week. When he got to the team hotel, he found balloons and chocolate covered strawberries decorated like footballs, sent by his parents. He and teammates immediately scarfed them down.
His parents did not make the trip. His father, Denny, underwent surgery for thyroid cancer last month and recently underwent radiation.
“My dad had some radiation and he can’t be around people right now for three or four days, so he had to stay back,” Murray said. “Sad. First game he’s missed since I was like eight years old. He wanted to be here, I wanted him to be here, but it’s the best thing for him.”
There will be a bigger game upcoming for Murray’s parents to attend. Players and coaches generally limited their comments to the final two regular season games against Georgia Southern and Georgia Tech, not yet looking ahead to Alabama.
But safety Bacarri Rambo acknowledged, “I’m sure some people didn’t think we would [be in this position]. I’m sure a lot of people still doubt us. But we feel we can beat anybody.”
And even the coach Mark Richt said Georgia is no longer focused on winning just the conference title. A berth in the BCS bowl game is possible, although the Dogs would need to win out and get some help from the teams ahead of them in the rankings (losses by two of the following three: Kansas State, Oregon and Notre Dame).
“Atlanta is not the end of the road, we hope,” Richt said.
They did not respond well to an early hole in Columbia. But now for the first time, they are playing with a sense of momentum. They’re playing with an edge.
Assuming no hiccups against Georgia Southern and Georgia Tech, the Dogs nonetheless will be underdogs to Alabama in the Georgia Dome.
But this Tide team suddenly looks beatable. It was fortunate to beat LSU 21-17 win last week. On Saturday, Texas A&M made its first conference game trip into Tuscaloosa and won 29-24. Alabama allowed 418 yards in offense and forced three turnovers. (Auburn fans were grateful because when the Alabama score was flashed on the scoreboard it gave them something to cheer about it. That won’t cheer again until coach Gene Chizik’s firing.)
Two years ago at this time, Auburn was on the way to an undefeated season and Georgia was on the way to the Liberty Bowl (and lost).
Richt was at his absolute bottom in terms of how he was perceived by the fan base — at least until losing to Boise State and South Carolina last season.
When asked recently about handling the dramatic turn in fortunes, he said, “You just know it’s a part of the business. You’ve got to keep believing in what you do, keep grinding, keep evaluating what you do, because if you need to make a change, you make a change. Maybe you need to recruit differently or train differently in the offseason or try something different schematically. If you just totally abandon what you believe in and try to be something you’re not, you’re done.”
Georgia isn’t nearly done. A defense that underachieved so much of the season is now stuffing opponents.
Then there is Murray, he of the egged house following the loss to South Carolina and the three-interception first half against Florida. He completed his first 10 passes against Auburn. By halftime he had already thrown for 186 yards and three touchdowns. He completed an 18-yard touchdown pass to Tavarres King, just after getting knocked to the ground by Auburn linebacker Cassanova McKinzy, which forced Murray to leave the game for a play. His threw a 56-yard strike to King, setting up Todd Gurley’s six-yard score.
This isn’t the same team we’ve watched for most of the season. It’s a team playing like a legitimate threat to Alabama and any other team in the BCS rankings.
And that’s something few could have seen coming.
By Jeff Schultz