Georgia’s football team awoke to new possibilities Sunday — and not just because a 43-0 victory tends to brighten one’s outlook.
Two surprising results elsewhere in the SEC on Saturday night -– South Carolina’s 31-28 loss to Kentucky and Florida’s 10-7 loss to Mississippi State -– scrambled the Eastern Division standings to the point that Georgia suddenly is within ½ game of first place.
Yes, the team that seemed destined to spend the season in oblivion after losing its first three SEC games.
After a crazy weekend, South Carolina leads the SEC East with a 2-2 league record, while Florida and Georgia are tied for second place with 2-3 league records. Vanderbilt is 1-2, Kentucky 1-3 and Tennessee 0-3 within the conference.
“People always say year in and year out that anybody can win on any given weekend, and that’s about what’s happening right now,” Georgia coach Mark Richt said Sunday. “It’s an exciting SEC year, no doubt.”
Georgia’s chances of winning the Eastern Division remain improbable, partly because the Bulldogs would lose a two-way tiebreaker to South Carolina on the basis of the Gamecocks’ 17-6 victory on Sept. 11.
And more significantly, Georgia has three tough SEC games remaining: Saturday at Kentucky, which beat South Carolina one week after the Gamecocks upset then-No. 1 Alabama; Oct. 30 in Jacksonville vs. Florida, which has beaten the Bulldogs in 17 of the past 20 meetings; and Nov. 13 at Auburn, which is undefeated and ranked No. 5 in this week’s Associated Press poll behind the play of Heisman Trophy-contending quarterback Cam Newton.
South Carolina and Florida remain in position to clinch the East’s berth in the SEC Championship Game if either team wins all of its remaining league games. (The Gamecocks and Gators meet on Nov. 13 at Florida.) Georgia would win the division if it wins its three remaining SEC games and if South Carolina loses two of its four remaining league games.
Georgia’s 43-0 victory over Vanderbilt and 41-14 victory over Tennessee the past two weeks make the Bulldogs the only SEC East team on a two-game winning streak at the moment. Florida, by contrast, is on a three-game losing streak.
Richt said he assumes his players are “keeping an eye on” the standings, but he wants the larger focus to remain where it has been for the past two weeks.
“The one thing we had to do to win these last couple of games was just focus on the process of becoming a better football team, rather than where we were in league play,” Richt said. “That was the big motivation for everybody –- to do the things we have to do to block better, tackle better, play more physical, play more disciplined.
“We’ve got some momentum, certainly, because of how we’ve played the last couple of weeks. But I don’t want to forget what got us into this mode; I want to keep focusing on that.”
Georgia’s immediate challenge is a Kentucky team that rallied from a 28-10 halftime deficit to beat South Carolina. Kentucky quarterback Mike Hartline completed 32 of 42 passes for a career-high 349 yards and four touchdowns. Wide receiver Chris Matthews caught 12 passes for 177 yards, and Randall Cobb caught eight for 63.
Kentucky’s offense could get another key player back this week. Tailback Derrick Locke, the SEC’s third leading rusher at 95.7 yards per game, didn’t play against South Carolina because of injuries to both shoulders. On Sunday, Kentucky coach Joker Phillips said Locke remains doubtful for the Georgia game but expressed hope he “might have a chance” to play if his shoulders continue to improve.
THE MUDDLED SEC EAST
Teams’ current conference records and remaining games:
South Carolina (2-2): at Vanderbilt Oct. 23; vs. Tennessee Oct. 30; vs. Arkansas Nov. 6; at Florida Nov. 13.
Florida (2-3): vs. Georgia in Jacksonville Oct. 30; at Vanderbilt Nov. 6; vs. South Carolina Nov. 13.
Georgia (2-3): at Kentucky Oct. 23; vs. Florida in Jacksonville Oct. 30; at Auburn Nov. 13.
Vanderbilt (1-2): vs. South Carolina Oct. 23; at Arkansas Oct. 30; vs. Florida Nov. 6; at Kentucky Nov. 13; vs. Tennessee Nov. 20.
Kentucky (1-3): vs. Georgia Oct. 23; at Mississippi State Oct. 30; vs. Vanderbilt Nov. 13; at Tennessee Nov. 27.
Tennessee (0-3): vs. Alabama Oct. 23; at South Carolina Oct. 30; vs. Mississippi Nov. 13; at Vanderbilt Nov. 20; vs. Kentucky Nov. 27.