It’s all there for the taking again for Georgia.
Georgia quarterback Aaron Murray lost to then-No. 5 Boise State to start the 2011 season. At that point, it was the Bulldogs' seventh loss to a top 10 team since 2008.
Three weeks after not coming close to measuring up in a top-10 matchup against South Carolina, the Bulldogs have second life and another big chance to steer their season back to Atlanta for the Southeastern Conference title game.
Get past No. 3 Florida today in Jacksonville, Fla., and the Bulldogs will have the inside track to win the SEC East title.
All Georgia has to do is what it has stumbled doing in recent seasons — knock off a top-10 team.
The Bulldogs recent record against elite teams has been resurrected since a 35-7 dismantling by the Gamecocks on Oct. 6.
Georgia is 1-9 against top-10 teams since the beginning of the 2008 season after going 7-4 under Richt to that point.
“I think it’s all on us as players,” said fifth-year senior linebacker Christian Robinson. “The games that we haven’t won, the big games that have gotten away from us have been our fault as players. I’m the son of a coach. If everyone does their job, you’re going to win. In the big games that matter the most, we didn’t show up in that area.”
Robinson said Georgia players are well aware of the stats. They saw some of them watching College GameDay on the morning of the South Carolina game.
“I love going against the best competition and that’s what we have this Saturday,” junior offensive guard Chris Burnette said. “We’re not too focused on what other people say. I guess you can say it’s valid because the numbers don’t lie.”
A caller on Georgia coach Mark Richt’s radio call-in show this month mentioned Georgia’s record against ranked opponents in recent years. Richt said that everyone would like to turn that trend around.
Florida provides that opportunity.
“It’s a game that’s going to be a tremendous challenge for us,” Richt said this week. “We know that. They are an outstanding football team and very talented. They have a lot of momentum and confidence right now, and those are tough teams to beat.”
‘Stats speak for themselves’
Greg McGarity isn’t going there.
The Georgia athletic director has essentially brushed off the question of the Bulldogs’ struggles against ranked teams in interviews since the South Carolina loss.
He did again this week.
“I’m not going to comment on that at all,” he said. “Stats speak for themselves. I really have no comment on certain particular selective wins and selective losses.”
McGarity wants the focus to be on the next opponent — which this week is the rival Gators.
He has maintained that he wants his teams to be in the hunt for SEC championships.
Georgia still is in that position.
Beat the Gators and Georgia will go to Atlanta if it holds serve against Ole Miss and Auburn.
“At the beginning of the year, everybody wanted to be in a position to be playing to moving towards Atlanta,” McGarity said. “We’re still in the conversation and in essence control our own destiny.”
McGarity was a senior administrator at Florida when it won national titles with Urban Meyer and Steve Spurrier as coaches, but he doesn’t meddle in how Richt or any of his coaches approach ranked teams or rivals on the schedule.
“I think it’s up to each coach to determine how they prepare for every game and every sport,” McGarity said. “I do not ever have a conversation with any of our coaches about a different approach, more emphasis. I do not have those conversations. I don’t ever recall it happening during my time at Florida. It was just a coach’s prerogative to determine who might need to have more of an emphasis, less of an emphasis. That’s strictly up to the head coach and their staff to make those determinations.”
Recapturing winning ways
Bryan McClendon was a senior receiver on Georgia’s 2005 SEC championship team that beat a pair of top 10 teams: No. 7 Tennessee and No. 3 LSU.
The Bulldogs have only one top-10 win the last four and a half seasons — against No. 7 Georgia Tech on Nov. 28, 2009.
“I wish I could put my finger on it to be honest with you,” said McClendon, in his fourth year as Georgia’s running backs coach. “It’s tough. It’s tough not only to win against great teams, but it’s tough to win on the road. … You’ve just got to make sure that you’re focusing on everything that you’re supposed to be focusing on week in and week out.”
Of course, Georgia hasn’t found success against top-10 opponents during a stretch when its record went from 10-3 to 8-5 to 6-7 before bouncing back with a 10-4 record in 2011 and its first trip to the SEC title game since 2005.
Russ Tanner, a center for Georgia from 2002-05, thinks the Bulldogs should be winning more games against top-tier opponents.
“Do I think the record should be better? Absolutely. Do I think it should be 8-2 or 9-1? Probably not,” said Tanner, a loan officer for Cornerstone Home Lending. “Because if you’re playing top-10 teams they’re top-10 for a reason, and even if you’re a top-10 team, you’re probably pretty even matched. At the best case you want to be .500 or better, I think. That hasn’t been the case. I think if you ask anybody within the program is that even close to acceptable, then the answer is no. You’ve got to do better than that against your really good teams.”
In 12 seasons, Richt is 31-28 against ranked teams, including 8-13 against top-10 opponents.
The Bulldogs went 7-4 under Richt against top-10 teams from 2001 through the end of the 2007 season, when the Bulldogs routed Hawaii in the Sugar Bowl, 41-10.
“Coach Richt did not forget how to coach in big games over the last three or four years,” Tanner said. “It doesn’t happen. You don’t change what you were doing. We were very good those first years, especially in the big games against some of the better teams. That hasn’t been the case the last few years.”
Tanner understands that Richt and the coaches take some heat for how they’ve fared against top-10 foes recently, some of which he said is probably deserved, but he said players also need to be accountable.
“I think a lot of it goes to these guys, the players we have need to be able to step up and make a play when there’s a play to be made,” Tanner said. “On our teams from ’02 to ’05, you had guys on defense specifically who would step up in the moment and make a play. You had the David Pollacks, the Thomas Davises, the Odell Thurmans of the world, Tim Jennings, guys like that who thrived. When the lights were the brightest, they played their best. You could always count on something happening to turn the tide in the game. Just in the last few years it seems we haven’t had that standout performance when the chips were on the table and it was time to play.”
High stakes, ranked or not
Georgia’s winning percentage against ranked opponents is sixth in the SEC since the start of the 2009 season, according to records kept by the SEC that include games against any opponents rated in the Associated Press, USA Today, Harris or BCS rankings.
Alabama (16-7), Auburn (9-8), South Carolina (8-10), Arkansas (8-10) and Florida (5-10) are ahead of the Bulldogs.
That came after what former Georgia coach and athletic director Vince Dooley called a “time of crisis” for Richt when he made big changes to his staff and his job security was in question.
“What I do know is they won the East last year,” Dooley said. “I do know that since coach Richt’s been there he has won two championships and he’s won the East on two or three other occasions. He’s won 10 games at least seven times and probably will do it again this year. Percentage-wise, he’s one of the four or five active (winningest) coaches in the country.”
Dooley guided Georgia to the 1980 national title after a period from 1971-79 during which the Bulldogs went 9-12 against ranked opponents, including 3-7 against top-10 teams.
“I’ve always felt like it was important to win the games that you’re supposed to win and then hopefully if you play good then maybe you’ll win a game or two that you’re not supposed to win,” said Dooley, who went 201-77-10 as Georgia coach from 1964-88. “Sometimes that game is against a much higher-ranked team, a better team. At times we had real success. Not so much at certain times and then we had it again.”
Georgia quarterback Aaron Murray, 2-8 against ranked teams without a top-10 win, has personally taken some of the heat for Georgia’s recent record against ranked opponents.
“I don’t think it matters
what team’s ranked, if a team
is ranked or not ranked in this game,” Murray said. “There’s going to be so many emotions and their guys are going to be playing harder than they’ve played all season long. It’s a fun game. I love being a part of it. I know I’ll be ready to go and my teammates will be ready to go.”
Florida will win the SEC East with a victory against Georgia.
“It’s a big game for us, it’s a big game for them,” Bulldogs outside linebacker Jarvis Jones said. “Definitely if we win it will put us in the driver’s seat for the East. … It’s going to be a dogfight for 60 minutes.”
One Georgia adminstrator is happy again to be playing with such high stakes.
“If you had to ask anybody, any Georgia fan if that were the case in the last Saturday in October if you were able to play the game and in you were in control of your destiny, I think they would say I’ll take that right now,” McGarity said. “Now we’re in that position. Even though we lost to South Carolina, we’re back in that position to where we control our own destiny. That’s all you can ask for.”