As they used to say in tire commercials, here’s where the rubber meets the road. Georgia looks really good, but that’s not the same as being really good. Until these Bulldogs whip somebody of national consequence, we can’t say for sure that this is again a team of national consequence.
Yes, Georgia is ranked No. 5 in the polls, and off the strength of its first five games it has looked (that hedging verb again) the part. But who have the Bulldogs beaten? Missouri? Good win, but the Tigers were/are unranked. Tennessee? Good win, but the Vols are unranked and were handled more easily by Florida in Knoxville than by the home side on Saturday. And that’s just this year.
Georgia’s 2011 season was equal parts rousing and confounding. The Bulldogs won 10 consecutive games and took the SEC East for the first time since Matthew Stafford was in high school. They also lost to the four best teams they played. Granted, all four — Boise State, South Carolina, LSU and Michigan State — were ranked among the top 11 in the final Associated Press poll, but you know when last the Bulldogs beat a team that would finish in the Top 25?
Nov. 28, 2009: Georgia 30, Georgia Tech 24.
Two Saturdays ago, this correspondent attended the 48-3 destruction of Vanderbilt and deemed it among the most impressive Bulldog performances he has ever witnessed. (For the record, this correspondent first saw Georgia play in person in 1974.) But the road to eminence isn’t paved with the likes of Vandy 2012 or Florida 2011. Until the Bulldogs bag a big name, their name will carry an asterisk.
Which is why South Carolina’s appearance on the schedule is most welcome. Want clarity? Here it comes. If Georgia goes to Chickentown and wins, the asterisk gets blown to smithereens. If not, we wonder longer and harder.
Georgia’s last meeting with the Gamecocks was among the strangest in a strange series. (Remember James Jackson flipping the ball to the ground? Remember Quincy Carter throwing it to the wrong team?) Even Steve Spurrier, who lives to gig the Bulldogs, allowed that “they definitely outplayed us.” But that 45-42 loss came at time when Georgia wasn’t sure it could beat anybody, let alone anybody good. Having won 15 of the 17 games since, it now has reason to believe.
ESPN is dispatching its “College GameDay” to Columbia, ensuring that hip waders will be required to slog through the hype. The game itself could be better than its billing. South Carolina’s defense is under new management — Lorenzo Ward replaced the esteemed Ellis Johnson, who left for Southern Miss — but has so far outperformed Georgia’s vaunted D. (It must be said that, owing to suspension, the defense lacked its full complement the first four games. It must also be said that Tennessee, in Week 5, amassed 44 points and 478 yards.)
Meanwhile, the Bulldog offense has become a bullet train, averaging 48 points and 536 yards. By way of comparison, Spurrier’s offense appears almost pedestrian. Did we have it wrong all these years? Is Mike Bobo the real Evil Genius?
Speaking of Spurrier, as indeed we must: He has embarked on another of his megalomaniacal sorties, trying to get Ron Morris, sports columnist of The State, fired for insubordination against the Emperor Stevie. Whining intimidation is an old Spurrier tactic: When at Florida, he tried it against writers from Gainesville and Orlando; heck, he even dashed off a handwritten note, complete with barnyard epithet, to yours truly. But this latest campaign is goofy even by Spurrier standards — almost as if this man of legendary ego and undeniable achievement still thirsts for approval.
The Gamecocks, who hadn’t won anything of note before Spurrier, upset No. 1 Alabama in 2010 en route to the East title. They also lost five games and were beaten 56-17 by Auburn in the SEC championship game. It has been nearly two years since South Carolina brought down Bama, and of its 11 victories last season the Gamecock victim ranked highest in the final AP poll was … No. 19 Georgia.
Now they’re both in the Top 10, and Saturday’s winner will have taken a giant step toward the Georgia Dome on Dec. 1. (Florida is again a factor, but that’s another matter for another day.) In the spirit of hype, we might just dub this the Game of Validation. Or, in the spirit of both tire advertising and ESPN-type ballyhoo, the Valid Bowl.
By Mark Bradley