The race to get to Atlanta from the Southeastern Conference’s Eastern Division is jumbled at the season’s midway point.
Georgia’s hopes of reaching the league title game could rest on a defense that hasn’t been close to being championship caliber.
The Bulldogs rank 96th or lower nationally in five categories: passing yards allowed (96th, 259.3 per game), third down defense (97th, 43.7 percent), pass efficiency defense (104th, 148.87), scoring defense (105th, 33.7 ppg), and red zone defense (108th, 90.5 percent).
Georgia has given up 30 or more points in 11 of its last 22 games, including a 41-26 upset loss to Missouri Saturday.
“I believe we’re going to keep getting better,” Georgia coach Mark Richt said. “I believe we’re going to be the type of defense that everybody is going to be proud of. It takes some time.”
Georgia (4-2, 3-1 SEC) fell to No. 15 in The Associated Press poll and to No. 16 in the USA Today coaches’ poll on Sunday.
The Bulldogs will carry their lowest national ranking since No. 19 in the final AP poll after the 2011 season into Saturday’s noon game at Vanderbilt on CBS.
Georgia’s injuries on offense have taken away some firepower, but the other contenders in the SEC East also have issues that could keep them from getting to Atlanta:
• No. 14 Missouri (6-0, 2-0 SEC): Quarterback James Franklin sustained a “grade 2 shoulder separation,” in the fourth quarter Saturday. Franklin is expected to be out at least through a crucial stretch of home games against Florida and South Carolina the next two weeks. Redshirt freshman Maty Mauk takes over at quarterback. Texas A&M awaits to end the season.
• No. 11 South Carolina (5-1, 3-1 SEC): The Gamecocks still would need Georgia to lose again if the Bulldogs and Gamecocks finish in a two-way tie since the Bulldogs beat the Gamecocks 41-30.
• No. 22 Florida (4-2, 3-1 SEC): The Gators, which lost road games at Miami and LSU, still have three SEC games left against top 15 teams. Their next two games are at Missouri and in Jacksonville against Georgia on Nov. 2. The Gators also have turned to a backup quarterback, Tyler Murphy, after a season-ending injury to Jeff Driskel.
“Who knows what happens?” Georgia quarterback Aaron Murray said. “We know we’ve got to take care of ourselves and we’ve got to win.”
South Carolina will head to Tennessee looking again like a formidable contender after crushing Arkansas 52-7 in Fayetteville.
“There’s a chance if we can play pretty close to how we played this week,” Gamecocks coach Steve Spurrier said Sunday. “This was by far our best game. Now can we take that game to Knoxville? I don’t know. If we can, that will give us hope we can take it to the next game and the next game and so forth.”
Richt said overcoming injuries may not be the deciding factor in the East race.
“It might be who can handle the adversity the best,” Richt said Sunday. “Who can find a way to win, who can fight and scratch and figure out a way? That’s probably what it’s going to come down to.”
Notes: Georgia could have star tailback Todd Gurley back for Vanderbilt after missing the last two games with a sprained ankle.
“He’s close,” Richt said on his Sunday night teleconference. “He’s real close.”
Even so, Georgia could be cautious.
“What we want is a really healthy Todd Gurley,” Richt said. “We want him to be at his best. We don’t want him to go in there without being full speed because if you do it’s not really safe for him. It also can cause another setback that might set him down even longer.”
Richt said there will be competition for spots on defense, but there always is, he said. “We’re not in any kind of position where we think we need to make a bunch of wholesale changes right now.” … Vanderbilt (3-3, 0-3 SEC) is coming off a bye week after losing to Missouri 51-28 on Oct. 5 in Nashville. … Georgia is ranked No. 16 in the debut of the Harris Poll, which is used in the BCS formula. … After heavy injuries the week before at Tennessee, Georgia came out of the Missouri game “pretty clean,” Richt said, with no significant new injuries.