This time last year, Georgia’s football team was still working to climb itself out of a gaping early season hole and stood with a unsightly 2-4 overall record.
At the halfway point of this season, that record has flipped to 4-2 and the Bulldogs are sitting in a first-place tie in the Southeastern Conference’s Eastern Division.
Georgia has picked itself up after an 0-2 start following a 45-42 loss to South Carolina to reel off four straight wins.
“I remember in that locker room after that game,” coach Mark Richt said. “It’s easy to go blast everybody if you want to and start pointing fingers and all that kind of thing. But we didn’t do that and I didn’t do that personally. All I said was, ‘Men, I just see the ingredients of a team that could be special. But we’ve got to find a way to put it together. We’ve got to find a way to just not give the thing away. … If we can continue to improve and get to a point where we’re not making it easy on the opponents and giving them some gifts, I think we’ll be a hard team to beat.”
Georgia has improved in just about every statistical category from the midpoint of last season except for net punting, punt returns, passing efficiency and sacks.
Just about everything else is up.
The biggest improvement is third-down defense (from 79th to fourth in the nation), pass-efficiency defense (from 108th to eighth) and in rushing offense, where the Bulldogs now average 170 yards a game, up from 136.8, led by one Isaiah Crowell.
“It’s just a maturity thing, experience and leadership, knowing what to do, knowing what to expect out of each other now,” cornerback Brandon Boykin said. “The whole defense itself, not just the secondary, is clicking way better than we were last year.”
A look at Georgia midway through the season:
Step right up
1. Mike Gilliard. If someone gave the average Georgia fan 10 guesses to pick which player would be Georgia’s leading tackler after six games, Gilliard probably wouldn’t show up on many lists. Yet here is the junior with 40 tackles, making the most of an opportunity in an inside linebacking corps that lost starters Alec Ogletree and Christian Robinson to foot injuries.
What’s defensive coordinator Todd Grantham to do when Ogletree returns for the Florida game?
“There’s 11 spots out there,” Grantham said. “Mike’s done a real good job. I’m proud of him.
2. Dallas Lee. After missing spring practice with respiratory problems, the offensive guard stepped into the starting lineup against South Carolina and has been there ever since. Kenarious Gates and Chris Burnette have missed time with injuries, but Lee has started three games at left guard and two at right guard.
3. Shawn Williams. Grantham moved Williams to inside linebacker for the Coastal Carolina game, but he’s made most of his 28 tackles at strong safety, including seven solo stops against Tennessee. The junior has an interception and two tackles for loss.
Worth All-SEC consideration
1. Punter Drew Butler. He’s averaging 46.1 yards per punt, good for 12th in the nation and ahead of his 44.5 average from last season.
2. OLB Jarvis Jones Jones. He quietly leads the team with nine tackles for loss, four sacks and 12 quarterback pressures. He is second on the team with 33 tackles.
3. CB/KR/PR Brandon Boykin. What hasn’t Boykin done this season? He’s a possible first-round NFL draft pick as a cornerback, is fourth in the SEC in kick returns with a 24.1 average and has Georgia’s longest touchdown run of the season on offense of 80 yards.
4. TE Orson Charles. The junior leads the team with four touchdowns and is second on the team with 17 catches.
5. Center Ben Jones/OT Cordy Glenn. The Vanderbilt game will be Jones’ 42nd career start. Glenn shifted from guard to left tackle this season. He gave up a pivotal sack to Jadeveon Clowney against South Carolina, but has rebounded.
“Cordy’s playing better,” offensive line coach Will Friend said. “He played good the last two games.”
Bar is set high
1. Kicker Blair Walsh. The senior is 8 of 14 on field goals, which jumps out considering he was 20 of 23 in 2010 and 20 of 22 in 2009. Walsh consulted with his personal kicking coach and has made adjustments to his steps. After missing three straight against Ole Miss, Walsh now has connected on 4 of his last 5, including both tries at Tennessee.
2. Quarterback Aaron Murray. The first-team preseason All-SEC pick is fourth in the conference in passing efficiency behind Tennessee’s Tyler Bray, Arkansas’ Tyler Wilson and Florida’s John Brantley. He was 26th in the nation in the category at the midpoint of last season. He’s 34th now.
The redshirt sophomore isn’t playing poorly by any stretch. He’s second in the conference with 13 touchdowns, but his six interceptions are just two shy of his total from all of last season.
His completion percentage of 61.2 percent, is just ahead of his 61.1 of last year.
“The majority of the time, I think I’m doing the right thing, I’ve just got to put the ball on the spot,” Murray said. “I’ve missed on it a couple of times here and there this season.”
3. Receiver Tavarres King. The junior embraced the idea of stepping up as a go-to guy to replace NFL top-five draft pick A.J. Green. King got off to a rough start with a couple of drops against Boise State. He’s tied for second on the team with 17 catches and has three touchdowns, but Malcolm Mitchell has emerged as the Bulldogs’ top receiver.
Three freshmen of impact
1. Tailback Isaiah Crowell: The freshman hasn’t disappointed after so much hype heading into the season. He’s on pace for 1,242 rushing yards, which would be the ninth most in a single season in program history.
“He’s a very special talent, in my opinion, and I think he’s going to only get better as we mature,” Richt said.
Crowell (573 yards on 118 carries, four touchdowns) has three 100-yard rushing games. Only Alabama’s Trent Richardson, Auburn’s Michael Dyer and South Carolina’s Marcus Lattimore have more this season in the SEC.
“We haven’t seen all the things he can do yet because he’s actually an outstanding route runner, an outstanding ball-catcher I really feel like the best is yet to come from Isaiah.”
2. Wide receiver Malcolm Mitchell: The only thing that has really slowed down the freshman from Valdosta is a pulled hamstring that will keep him out of today’s game. He leads Georgia with 25 catches for 438 yards and three touchdowns.
3. Inside linebacker Amarlo Herrera: Outside linebacker Ray Drew was the five-star headliner on defense, but the four-star Herrera has taken advantage of injuries at his position to rack up 24 tackles, tied for fourth most on the team.
Three high moments
1. Richt’s 100th win: In his 11th season with the Bulldogs, Richt got a milestone win at a place where Georgia had been pounded on its previous two visits. The win kept Georgia in a tie with South Carolina in the division race. Players celebrated with Richt in the locker room after the game.
2. Crowell carries the load: Crowell has twice as many yards per game as leading rusher Washaun Ealey (49.2) did at the midway point last season. Against Ole Miss, he rushed for 147 yards on 30 carries in a 27-13 victory.
3. Defense shows turnaround: Despite injuries at inside linebacker, Georgia’s defense is performing like the Bulldogs hoped it could in Todd Grantham’s second season. Georgia is sixth in the nation and third in the SEC in total defense (260.5 yards per game), anchored by some big bodies at nose guard and an experienced secondary.
Three low moments
1. Washington arrested: Less than 12 hours after perhaps his best game as a Bulldog, outside linebacker Cornelius Washington was arrested for a DUI and speeding after going 92 in a 55-mph zone in Commerce. The DUI arrest brought a two-game suspension.
2. Showing against Boise State: After an offseason of build-up, Georgia was no match for the fifth-ranked Broncos. Kellen Moore completed 28 of 34 passes for 261 yards and three touchdowns and The Bulldogs trailed 28-7 until late in the third quarter of a 35-21 loss.
3. Second-and-56: It wasn’t costly as much as it was comedic. Georgia went backwards after moving the ball to the Tennessee 23 in the fourth quarter up 20-6.
“It looked like we were going to separate and remove all the drama,” Richt said. “And then holding, holding, holding, holding and a facemask personal foul, before you know it became 2nd down and 56 and third down and 57. … I don’t know what you do other than minimize it and punt them back down the best you can and hopefully play some defense.”
Three pivotal games ahead
Only Alabama and LSU have longer winning streaks in the SEC now than Georgia, but if the Bulldogs are going to keep rolling they will have to handle the bigger challenges still ahead in their schedule.
1. Florida Oct. 29 in Jacksonville: The Bulldogs get their first CBS showcase game of the season. Both the Gators and Bulldogs will be coming off bye weeks. Florida, coming off a pair of blowout losses, will be on a three-game losing streak if Auburn wins their game tonight. Georgia expects to get back Ogletree and receiver Mitchell from injury and Washington returns from a two-game suspension. Will Florida quarterback John Brantley return?
2. Auburn Nov. 19 in Athens: The Tigers are eighth in the SEC in scoring offense, 11th in scoring defense and dead last in total defense, but are still 4-2 overall, 2-1 in the SEC. The losses were on the road at Clemson and Arkansas. It’s a big dropoff from Cam Newton to Barrett Trotter.
3. Georgia Tech Nov. 26 in Atlanta. The Yellow Jackets are riding high at 6-0, but they still have to play at Miami and have home games with Clemson and Virginia Tech in the coming weeks. Georgia Tech is averaging 553.5 yards of total offense and 46.5 points per game.