ATHENS, Ga. – Mark Richt was late to his postgame press conference, but he wasn’t trying to avoid the media. The Georgia coach had no reason to hide after his team’s colossal 34-7 blowout of Auburn at Sanford Stadium on Saturday night.
But Richt let the media marinate a few minutes because he was catching the end of another SEC matchup. While Richt’s team celebrated in the locker room, its Eastern Division rival, Missouri, was locked in a tight game with Texas A&M. Normally a coach wouldn’t care about something like that, but this situation was different. If the Tigers lost, Georgia would clinch the SEC East.
“That’s why I was a little bit late here,” Richt said at the podium. “[Texas A&M] had a fourth-and-1 on the 2, and they didn’t convert it.”
Someone informed Richt that Missouri held on to beat the 24th-ranked Aggies, 34-27.
“Missouri won? Oh, okay,” he said, shrugging. “Well, there’s two more games. There’s nothing we can do but play our best.”
If Georgia played its best on Saturday, the SEC race might be in for a surprise. The Bulldogs manhandled visiting Auburn in the latest installation of the Deep South’s Oldest Rivalry, a game that was never really in doubt.
Not long ago this Georgia team was forgotten. It had been dismantled by Florida, 38-20, in the World’s Largest Outdoor Cocktail party. Two weeks later, the Dawgs look far from dead.
Most expected Auburn’s trip to Athens to turn into a shootout. The Bulldogs and Tigers boasted two of the SEC’s top three scoring offenses, and that prediction looked spot-on after Auburn’s first drive of the game. Coach Gus Malzahn’s offense went 70 yards in 10 plays and capped the drive with a Cameron Artis-Payne touchdown run. Georgia hadn’t played a home game in 42 days, but an early 7-0 deficit forced the Bulldog faithful into silence five minutes into the matchup.
That turned out to be the only play on Auburn’s highlight reel. Soon after, Georgia found the end zone on a Huston Mason pass to Malcolm Mitchell with 2:15 to play in the first quarter. The Dawgs then scored on five of their next six drives. The Tigers, meanwhile, were flummoxed by a Bulldogs defense that’d suddenly found its footing. They punted on four straight series after their opening touchdown.
Auburn came in averaging 38.7 points per game, but Georgia’s defense wasn’t ready to let Malzahn work his magic. It held the Tigers to their lowest scoring output in the Malzahn era as they struggled to 4.6 yards per play and three turnovers.
“It’s pretty annoying when people are projecting your defense to play horribly and just let people score,” freshman linebacker Lorenzo Carter said. “Offense wins games, but defense wins championships. That’s what we’re trying to prove.”
The offense, however, had its own success, sparked primarily by the return of Todd Gurley. Georgia’s talented running back missed the last four games as a suspension for accepting money for autographs, an NCAA violation. If Gurley was rusty, it didn’t show. He combined with freshman back Nick Chubb to reel off 282 yards and three touchdowns on the ground.
Georgia fans held their collective breath when Gurley left the game under his own power in the fourth quarter with an apparent left knee injury. Richt had no information afterward other than confirming it was a knee injury. “We’ll just have to see what it was,” Richt said.
Two weeks ago, no one would’ve predicted this performance from this Georgia team. Heck, for all intents and purposes, the Bulldogs were finished. No team loses to South Carolina and Florida and makes it to Atlanta. The Dawgs just didn’t live up to the hype – which was the same song, but a different verse to longtime Georgia fans.
But many players in the locker room were confused. They looked at the calendar, and sure enough, plenty of Saturdays remained. Suddenly the rest of the season turned into a chance for redemption.
“That was definitely motivation,” offensive guard Greg Pyke said. “I don’t think anyone in our football complex thought we were done. The fans are going to talk. The reporters will write stuff about that. But in this league, you just have to play week to week. The biggest game you have is that week.”
The first step was dropping 63 points in a win at Kentucky last week. Next was returning home to hammer the reigning SEC champions. Now, some Georgia players won’t even call this situation a “turnaround.” The last two weeks just proved what they already knew about themselves.
“That’s one of the reasons we’ve been able to come out and play like we have,” receiver Chris Conley said. “We made sure that we looked internally and focused on ourselves and ignored the noise from the outside and focused on what we can control. If we play Georgia football, we can win games. We believe that.”
Unfortunately, Missouri didn’t aid Georgia’s revival this week. For now the Bulldogs must wait a little longer for an elusive spot in Atlanta. But for that to happen, the Tigers must lose at least one of their last two SEC games. That scenario is not improbable: Missouri faces Tennessee and Arkansas in its final two games. Meanwhile, Georgia's SEC slate is finished, as it hosts Charleston Southern and Georgia Tech to close out the regular season.
The SEC West has dominated the conference narrative this season, and for good reason. Alabama, Auburn, Mississippi State and Ole Miss have all spent time ranked in the top 10. The SEC East, meanwhile, has been little more than a pee-wee league in comparison. On a national level, the East has little significance. But maybe the West won’t determine the SEC’s playoff representation after all. If Georgia closes out this season like it played on Saturday, why can’t the Dawgs have a say in the conference race? Richt knows this is a better team right now than in September. If its latest performance is any indication, Georgia could be as dangerous as anybody.
“That’s all a coach can hope for,” Richt said, “a team that gets better on a weekly basis, and gets to a point where they can reach their potential on any given weekend. They’ve been a good bunch that way.”