Georgia has come a long way since a meltdown against Kentucky two years ago, when the Bulldogs committed four turnovers in the second half of a 34-27 home loss.
Or since the Bulldogs’ second loss this season, when South Carolina outlasted Georgia 45-42 after the Gamecocks scored touchdowns on an interception return, a fumble return and off a fumble that set up another score.
Turnovers have turned Georgia’s way during its eight-game winning streak.
The Bulldogs now need to only beat Kentucky on Saturday in Sanford Stadium to win the Southeastern Conference Eastern Division title thanks in large part to not losing the turnover battle in any of those games.
“I think that’s really the reason why we’ve won,” quarterback Aaron Murray said. “Our defense has done a great job of getting turnovers, getting us great field position and we really haven’t turned the ball over as an offense that much.”
Georgia is plus-19 in turnover margin since Todd Grantham became defensive coordinator prior to the 2010 season. The Bulldogs are tied for ninth in the nation in turnover margin this year.
The Bulldogs went from 118th out of 120 FBS teams in turnovers gained (12) in 2009 to 30th last year (26) to tied for 14th this season (23). Meanwhile, the Bulldogs’ offense has 30 combined turnovers the past two seasons after it had 28 in 2009.
“It’s something we stress as a team and an offense — end every possession in a kick, whether you’re kicking an extra point, a field goal or a punt,” offensive coordinator Mike Bobo said. “Sometimes it’s OK to punt. Don’t give them a short field.”
In the loss to Kentucky in 2009, quarterback Joe Cox threw two second-half interceptions and his pitch on a toss sweep to Washaun Ealey was fumbled away.
“I don’t think we have an effort problem, we have a problem respecting the ball,” coach Mark Richt said after that game.
The beards that Murray and tight end Aron White are sporting these days shows how much respect for the ball these Bulldogs have.
Georgia players are allowed to go scruffy when they don’t lose the turnover battle.
“I can’t grow facial hair so it doesn’t bother me as much,” center Ben Jones said. “They want to have the nastiest beard on the team.”
Tight end Aron White says he hasn’t shaved since after the South Carolina game. Murray’s razor has gone unused since the bye week before Florida.
White is one of five starters remaining from that 2009 Kentucky game.
“Those are the losses that you kick yourself more over when you feel like a team didn’t come out and get the best of you, but you kind of gave it to them,” White said. “We were suffering that against South Carolina earlier this season, giving up 28 points off turnovers and special teams. … What happens if you take away one of those turnovers or two of those turnovers?”
On defense, Georgia couldn’t go anywhere but up after 2009. The Bulldogs recovered two fumbles, last in the nation, but have grabbed 10 each of the past two seasons.
It forced 18 in 2009, 22 in 2010 and has 29 already this year.
“We need to recover some more,” Richt said. “When you’re knocking the ball out, you’re going to get a chance for turnovers.”
The Bulldogs have gone from 76th in the nation in interceptions gained (10) to 27th last year (16) to 15th this year (13). Georgia starts each practice with three minutes of ball disruption drills.
“We’re putting pressure on quarterbacks so DBs can get interceptions,” said defensive end Abry Jones. “Just group tackling and really getting the ball out of there.”
The fact that Georgia’s current winning streak coincides with its turnover success — it came out ahead of its opponent in six games with Mississippi State and Tennessee even — is consistent with what Grantham found out in his own study when he was an NFL assistant.
Grantham said a minus-one turnover ratio meant a team’s chances of winning were about 20 percent and if a team was plus-one, a team’s chances of winning are at least 80 percent.
He said he saw Georgia’s defensive turnover statistics when he arrived, but didn’t look at reasons for them.
“I just knew that it was critical that we got turnovers and we were in the plus-margin,” he said.
“The funny thing is you spend hours on schemes — offensive, defense, special teams — you’re grinding, but the most important thing you can do is secure the ball or disrupt the ball on defense,” Richt said. “It’s not some type of rocket science.”
Georgia went 6-7 last year despite finishing 19th in the nation in turnover margin, the only team in the top 25 in the category that had a losing record.
The Bulldogs are plus-nine this year in turnovers.
“Our playmaking ability has gotten so much better,” said safety Bacarri Rambo, the SEC interception leader with seven. “Everyone’s just doing their jobs. It’s a special group of guys.”