After tough but successful first month, Bulldogs settle into their season
KNOXVILLE, Tenn. -- Arthur Lynch, a grizzled veteran of the locker room, could gather his teammates around him Saturday and talk of a day of yore -- when the Georgia football team lost to Tennessee.
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Lynch, a fifth-year senior, is the only current Bulldogs player who was active on that day in 2009, when the Volunteers won in a 45-19 rout, in Knoxville.
“It was (Lane) Kiffin’s first year; they were excited, a lot of momentum going on in that program. Probably pretty similar to what they’ve got going on right now,” Lynch said.
It’s not quite a perfect comparison. Tennessee does have a first-year head coach in Butch Jones, but the Volunteers are in a bit rougher shape than they were in Kiffin’s one and only season at Tennessee. And Georgia is in much better shape, which is why it is favored by more than 10 points.
Yet that’s why the Bulldogs had better tread carefully in Knoxville.
Having completed the rough opening month of its season, Georgia has now moved into the next phase. Gone is the talk about big games and gaining national respect. Now the talk is about avoiding letdowns, not looking ahead and respecting every opponent.
That’s why the talk around Georgia this week was about the challenge of playing at Neyland Stadium, with its 102,000-plus fans, and the fallacy of overlooking any team named Tennessee.
“This is where having older people on the team really comes into play a lot,” Georgia junior Chris Conley said. “Older guys who have been in situations where they’ve won games and realize that they have to forget about that and move forward. I think the older guys are going to be conveying to the younger guys that this win (over LSU on Saturday) didn’t mean anything if we don’t win from here on out and if we don’t focus on the game at hand.”
Head coach Mark Richt has said several times this week that his team needs to be “locked in” in order to play well. But this game might be the first real test of how much the team needs to be locked in emotionally. There was clearly enough motivation in the top-10 matchups with Clemson, South Carolina and LSU, and the results seemed clearly based on execution. In the North Texas game, the score was tied at 21 in the third quarter, but in the end Georgia still nearly tripled its weaker opponent in total yardage and won by 24 points.
Tennessee (3-2) would seem capable of providing a scare based on how it fared two weeks ago against Florida before falling by two touchdowns. But last weekend’s seven-point win over South Alabama argues otherwise. So does Georgia’s obvious talent advantages, especially star quarterback Aaron Murray against Tennessee’s young and vulnerable secondary.
But a couple of key injuries could help make it interesting.
Georgia star tailback Todd Gurley is not likely to play after not practicing through Wednesday because of a sprained ankle. Georgia does at least have a capable backup in Keith Marshall, who had 96 yards on 20 carries against LSU and last year had his best game against Tennessee: 164 yards and two touchdowns on 10 carries.
“Last year, the whole offense had a great game,” Marshall said. “The offensive line blocked well, opened up holes. I just had a couple big runs.”
Of course, Georgia won that game in a 51-44 shootout. It would rather not have a repeat, although its games this year have been that way.
Tennessee’s offense has struggled, particularly the passing game. But Georgia seems likely to be without one of its starters in the secondary.
Free safety Tray Matthews, fourth on the team in tackles this season, aggravated a previous hamstring injury in Tuesday’s practice. Matthews has the team’s only interception thus far this season.
Still, this should be an opportunity for Georgia’s defense (giving up an average of 449 yards per game) to get better. And if not, Murray and the offense have shown that they can carry the team, even without Gurley.
Murray will almost certainly become the SEC’s all-time passing leader in the game; Murray trails David Greene by 99 yards, which is 10 fewer than Murray’s career low for passing yards.
The game might not loom as large on the national stage, but it’s still going to be the CBS marquee game. And Conley said the wins over South Carolina and LSU, putting Georgia back in the national title picture, have done the opposite of taking the pressure off the team.
“I don’t think so. I think the pressure’s been amped up,” he said. “You know now we have a bigger target on our back, and for the older guys we understand that everyone’s gonna give us their best shot. It’s up to us to convince the younger guys that, hey, it doesn’t mean anything unless we continue to win.”