After losing two games to highly ranked opponents, then winning one over an out-manned opponent, Georgia now enters the grind of its SEC schedule.
Saturday’s game at Ole Miss will start a stretch of four SEC games in four weeks for the Bulldogs, all but one of them on the road.
It should be a revealing patch of schedule.
“The thing I like is, we’re a team that is getting better as we go,” UGA coach Mark Richt said Sunday evening. “We do have a lot of room to grow yet. The last couple of performances, minus the huge mistakes, four or five plays that really got us [against South Carolina], I felt we were making a lot of progress. As you watch tape, it’s still pretty obvious we’ve got some youth and inexperience that still needs to improve.
“Overall, I think we’re a team that is on the rise, but we’ll see,” Richt said. “We’re going to play that first SEC game away from home and get a better feel for what kind of progress we have really made.”
That game is at 12:21 p.m. Saturday in Oxford, Miss., against an Ole Miss team that has the same record as Georgia (1-2 overall, 0-1 SEC) but is coming off a particularly dismal defeat.
While Georgia reveled in a 59-0 victory over Coastal Carolina in Athens, Ole Miss suffered through a 30-7 loss at Vanderbilt -– the Rebels’ ninth loss in their past 10 SEC games and the Commodores’ largest margin of victory over an SEC opponent in 40 years.
Ole Miss’ starting quarterback, Zack Stoudt, was poorly protected by his offensive line and threw five interceptions. The Rebels’ defense allowed Vanderbilt to rush for 281 yards.
For Georgia, the trip to Ole Miss is followed by league games at home against Mississippi State on Oct. 1, at Tennessee on Oct. 8 and at Vanderbilt on Oct. 15. Then, following an open date, the Bulldogs face Florida in Jacksonville on Oct. 29.
“There’s a sense of urgency in that if we want to stay in this Eastern Division race we’ve got to win,” Richt said. “Right now we’ve lost control of our destiny in this thing [because of the loss to South Carolina], but there are so many more games to played. Our goal is just to win our first Southeastern Conference game this year, period; that’s all we’re worried about right this minute.”
His players’ confidence seems high despite the losses to Boise State and South Carolina.
“I think we’re ready to get back into SEC play and get going again,” quarterback Aaron Murray said. “We have a lot of guys playing great football right now, and we think we can play with anyone.”
The confidence, Murray suggested, stems not so much from the rout of Coastal Carolina, an FCS opponent, but from the 45-42 loss to South Carolina the week before and the Bulldogs’ belief they would have won handily if not for three turnovers and a fake punt.
To succeed in SEC play, Georgia will need to minimize turnovers and, according to Richt, improve defensively inside its 20-yard line.
“The one area where we’ve just got to get better as we get into more of the Southeastern Conference play is red-zone defense,” Richt said. “We just have not done a great job there yet, but that’s going to be a point of emphasis to see if we can force some field goals instead of some touchdowns when people do happen to get in there.”
Except for the continuing absence of starting inside linebackers Christian Robinson and Alec Ogletree with foot injuries, the Bulldogs appear to be relatively healthy.
Richt said Sunday that he hopes backup tailback Richard Samuel, who sat out the Coastal Carolina game with a heel injury, will be able to play this week. Richt also expects wide receiver Marlon Brown and offensive guard Kenarious Gates to return from ankle injuries and possibly defensive end DeAngelo Tyson from a strained back.