When Aron White was being recruited by Georgia, he had a perception of the program that was shared by many.
“I viewed Georgia as one of those top teams,” said White, a third-year sophomore who plays tight end for the Bulldogs. “They were always in the chase if not right there winning it.”
Over the past few seasons, that impression has changed a bit. The Southeastern Conference is ruled by defending national champion Florida, Alabama and LSU. Georgia has slipped to that next tier of teams, and there seems to be more concern between the hedges about being usurped by up-and-coming Tennessee and its brash new coach, Lane Kiffin, than catching up with the Big Three anytime soon.
Being the fourth-best team in perhaps the nation’s best conference is nothing to be ashamed of, but it’s a little tough to stomach in these parts. After all, this is the team that reached the SEC championship game three times in coach Mark Richt’s first five seasons, winning two of them.
The Bulldogs haven’t played for the title since 2005. This season, they’re just trying to keep their head above .500 heading into Saturday’s game against top-ranked Florida.
Georgia (4-3, 3-2 SEC) could be headed to its worst season of the Richt era without a major turnaround in the final month of the season.
“No one was looking forward to this,” safety Bryan Evans said. “No one was expecting it.”
An upset over Florida would go a long way toward turning around the image of the program. Don’t think the Bulldogs haven’t considered the possibilities, though the Gators are a 15-point favorite to extend their domination of this bitter rivalry with a 17th win in the last 20 meetings.
“Even if both teams were unranked, it would always be a big game,” Georgia quarterback Joe Cox said. “But now, with us being unranked and playing the No. 1 team in the country, it could change our season. We want to use this game as a great opportunity to turn our season around. That’s what we’re going for.”
Florida coach Urban Meyer can’t understand how a team with Georgia’s talent — the Bulldogs perennially sign some of the nation’s highest-ranked recruiting classes — has already lost three games.
“I don’t get it. I don’t see it. I’m watching the film and all of a sudden the score is 45-19 and I’m like, ‘Wait a minute. I just watched this game. Where did they score?”’ Meyer said, referring to Georgia’s blowout loss at Tennessee three weeks ago.
Much of the blame for Georgia’s slide has fallen on the defense, and it’s hard to argue with the numbers. The Bulldogs rank 10th in the SEC and 70th nationally in yards allowed (365.6 per game), and they haven’t done very well against either the run (54th in the nation) or the pass (90th).
No one is under more heat than defensive coordinator Willie Martinez, whose unit has surrendered at least 30 points a staggering 14 times in his four-plus seasons on the job.
Meyer finds those numbers hard to believe.
“I see a bunch of great players. They are well-schemed,” the Florida coach said. “I think it’s elsewhere that things are happening.”
He’s right to a degree. There are other problems, most notably a running game that ranks last in the SEC and 103rd nationally with a dismal 108-yard average. That’s rather hard to take at a school such as Georgia, which has produced a string of dazzling tailbacks including Herschel Walker and Knowshon Moreno.
The most hideous number of all is the turnover ratio. The Bulldogs have lost eight fumbles and thrown nine interceptions, but the defense has come up with only one fumble and five interceptions. At minus-11, the Bulldogs trail every team in the nation but one in that crucial category.
To recap: Georgia is struggling to run, having trouble stopping the run, and keeps coming up on the short end of turnovers. Not exactly a winning formula.
Of course, the Bulldogs can take a major step in the right direction with a win Saturday in Jacksonville, Fla.
“We can put ourselves back in a situation where people view us a top team, a force to be reckoned with,” White said. “We wear this ‘G’ with pride. We’re not just playing for us. We’re playing for everybody who ever wore the ‘G.”’