NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- Now Georgia knows the ultimate goal is gone, barring some unforeseeable course of events that isn’t worth delving into. So the hopes for making this a successful season are now adjusted.
But those hopes are still reasonable.
Yes, Georgia already has won the SEC East title twice. So winning the division a third straight time might not be a huge accomplishment, unless you consider the current state of the team:
An injury-riddled offense, with three season-ending knee surgeries, in addition to likely not having star tailback Todd Gurley and starting receiver Michael Bennett for at least one more game.
A young and struggling defense, which still has half a season left to turn things around.
Should Georgia win its next six games and get back to the SEC championship game, that now would be a pretty good achievement. And then if Georgia does get back to Atlanta, it can try to finally win the SEC title, which it hasn’t done the past two trips.
“It’s still attainable,” senior quarterback Aaron Murray said. “Obviously we have to win the rest of our games. If we lose another one, then you can definitely shoot that out the window. So we have to take care of business these next six games. Obviously, we need some help from Missouri. But we feel very confident with our chances of still getting back there.”
Three of Georgia’s remaining SEC games look dicey, starting with Saturday at Vanderbilt. While the Bulldogs have not lost at Vanderbilt in 22 years, they came very close two years ago, needing a last-second tackle by punter Drew Butler to avoid the upset.
This time around, Georgia is again a modest favorite, but much like last week’s game against Missouri, the offensive injuries and state of the defense make the margin for error very small.
The Bulldogs found out last week that a small margin of error can cost them.
“It’s never been a physicality issue or an effort issue with this team. I think that’s evident from our performances on the field,” senior tight end Arthur Lynch said. “But there’s times where it’s pretty noticeable, and it’s illustrated that we’re not executing. And if anything, that’s the players; it’s not the coaches. We’ll continue to get better, and I think this is the perfect week to bring everything together in all three facets.”
The three facets he meant were offense, defense and special teams. But head coach Mark Richt is focused on three more specific factors:
Turnover ratio: Georgia is minus-four this year, the result of its minus-four performance against Missouri, costing it the game. The team has forced just five turnovers all year, third fewest in the country. And those five haven’t exactly been impressive: Two were muffed punts, one was Tennessee’s Pig Howard losing the ball as he stretched to the goal line in overtime, and another was an errant North Texas pass that Tray Matthews caught in the open field. The lone real forced turnovers was critical in deciding the game: South Carolina’s Connor Shaw fumbling when hit by Amarlo Herrera.
Third-down defense: Georgia notoriously has been deficient in this department this season, allowing opponents to convert 44 percent of the time. And it has often come in critical situations. Georgia’s young secondary has been plagued by missed assignments, particularly with safeties not coming to help cornerbacks. But on the third downs, the pass rush sometimes has been lacking.
Third-down offense: While the third-down defense gets all the attention, Richt hasn’t been pleased with his offense either, which is only converting 37 percent of the time. Not having Gurley -- who is expected to be out again -- has not helped, setting up more third-and-longs.
“Our turnover ratio is not what it should be. We’ve lost a couple games where we were minus-one and minus-four. We need to win that. Third downs on both sides of the ball have not been good enough,” Richt said. “Those factors are probably biggest on my mind right now.”
Even with all the injuries, Georgia seems more talented than Vanderbilt, so the turnover margin and avoiding mistakes loom large. And it’s key for the Bulldogs to get out of Nashville with a win. Because then they could take a week off and get ready for Florida, then eventually Auburn and Kentucky and hope Missouri trips up a couple of times along the way.
“Our first goal is to make it to Atlanta. And to be able to make it there and compete for that game, for that championship, to win that, that’s a great year right there,” Murray said. “But we still have a long way to go. We still have six games left. A long season for everyone to go. So we just have to take care of business.”