Guerry Clegg Commentary: Victory over Florida still meaningful

October 29, 2013 

Dreams of a national championship are now just a foggy memory. Returning to the SEC championship game would take something of a minor miracle along the lines of Bob Etter's muffed field goal turned into a touchdown, Appleby-to-Washington, Fourth and Dumb, and Run Lindsey Run all rolled into one.

So what would a victory over Florida mean for Georgia in this lost cause of a season?

Plenty.

It would mean a small step forward rather than a huge step backward. There's no middle ground.

Missouri's loss to South Carolina left the door slightly ajar for the Bulldogs in the SEC East. But that is secondary right now. Far more important for the Bulldogs is reestablishing positive momentum.

Todd Gurley is healthy again. So is Michael Bennett, which helps offset losing Chris Conley to a sprained ankle. If they can just get through this week with a victory -- so long as the price isn't as steep in terms of wounded bodies at the Tennessee game -- the Bulldogs could finish strong.

Too often, we measure team's success against our own expectations. Sometimes those expectations are fair. Georgia in 2008 and Alabama in 2010 each began those seasons ranked No. 1 in the country. Both of those teams had the talent to at least contend for the national championship. Each finished with three losses. Neither had the valid alibi of critical injuries or egregious targeting calls. Both simply underachieved.

But sometimes those expectations are unrealistic. Hugh Durham, the former Georgia basketball coach, used to admonish the media about this. Paraphrasing here, Durham would say something along these lines:

"If you pick us to have a good year and we don't, you say we underachieved. Maybe you were just wrong."

Durham was right. That 2008 Georgia team not only had Matthew Stafford, Knowshon Moreno and A.J. Green, it had several defensive starters who wound up in the NFL. Losing to Alabama, Florida and Georgia Tech was no shame. But they gave up 135 points in those three games.

This team isn't that good. Sure, before all the injuries, this team's offense might have been better than that '08 team's. But with only three defensive starters returning -- one of those being a sophomore -- it might have been unrealistic to think the Bulldogs could have dethroned Alabama even if they had stayed healthy.

The fact they have failed to improve defensively is a different matter, and one that calls for closer inspection after the season.

Nothing will ever erase the regret of losing to Vanderbilt. But other than that blight, the Bulldogs are about where they should be with all of the injuries.

How they finish will go a long way to defining this season. With Gurley back to balance the offense and Bennett back to give Aaron Murray a go-to threat over the middle, the Dogs may be closer to the team that beat LSU and was dominating Tennessee than the one that couldn't keep pace with Missouri and self-destructed against Vanderbilt.

A win over Florida would be a much needed boost of confidence, especially with Auburn and Georgia Tech looming. The other remaining games are against Appalachian State and Kentucky. Sure, they Bulldogs could lose to all of their Big Three rivals. But they also could sweep them. Even if Missouri doesn't collapse, a 9-3 regular season would put the Dogs in position to secure their third consecutive double-digit win season.

It would also give them their first three-game winning streak against Florida since 1987-89, Vince Dooley's last two years and Ray Goff's first.

All of that would be impossible with a loss Saturday. Losing to Florida with a healthy Gurley would make the season essentially unsalvageable. The message boards, already blowing up from the Vandy loss, would short-circuit with rumors of coaching changes. As much as they lack credibility, such rumors make the coaches' jobs that much more difficult on the recruiting trail.

It's the difference between playing on New Year's Day in Florida or New Year's Eve in Shreveport. All of that is speculative. The tangible stakes should be enough. It's Georgia-Florida.

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