Dawgs take Step towards future with Purdue

ORLANDO - As we've seen from the scuffles and ejections and downright fights, what's just a bowl game to most of us is a little more to those on the field, and to those in stadiums throughout the country.

Thursday? A bowl game here in a city that's clearly an aberration of urban planning, where you can go faster in a parking garage than on many city streets.

It's a game between the two braggingest conferences in the country, and the two best conferences in the country.

And, much to the dismay of - and denials by - their friends on The Flats, Thursday is Georgia's test, Georgia's application to be a legitimate national championship contender in the fall.

On paper, it's fairly easy to lump Georgia into the group, especially with a win Thursday over a quality team from a quality conference.

A record-setting quarterback returns behind the entire offensive line. A corps of running backs returns. Most of one of the nation's top defenses is back.

And don't forget those injured guys like Will Thompson, Cedric Haywood and Tony Milton. Other guys will be healthy. There's not a spot on the team, save for kicker, that won't be deep and experienced, even if people get hurt. Don't forget about the redshirts all over the place.

Sure, replacing Michael Johnson - this year's best receiver - and Damien Gary is a key, but the Bulldogs replaced Terrence Edwards - the best receiver the previous two years - pretty well. Don't be surprised if the dynamic receiving duo by mid-September is Sean Bailey and Haywood.

Finding another Billy Bennett is quite tough. After all, he's only got SEC and NCAA kicking records to hang on the wall.

Upgrading the cover ability at cornerback and perhaps filling a sudden gap at safety? Major issues.

And maybe there'll be an opening at defensive end. Know what? Georgia won't be hurt nearly as bad as people think if David Pollack listens to some shaky advice and leaves early.

Thompson is an all-SEC guy on the other side, and if he'd played this year, he'd have huge numbers and Pollack would have better numbers.

So much is back. But Thursday, we might see some of the real deal.

Will Mark Richt upgrade his offensive philosophy? Will he burn a chunk of pages from the playbook, and white-out portions of other pages?

Sure, David Greene isn't having as sharp a year aesthetically as his numbers might show. The stats say he's playing better than it looks like he's playing. But his reads are off, he's held onto the ball too long, and just hasn't made as many big plays as in the past. Can anybody argue with the ignoring of the tight end position or targets in the middle of the field?

And yes, Georgia's 10-3 in a rebuilding year. Still, few would argue that this offense hasn't looked sharp. Some of it's execution, some of it's game plan, some of it is imploding at the same time.

That's why Georgia's ability to make the next step hinges, it says here, on Richt doing some revamping, some rethinking. Maybe there's an offensive coordinator/play-caller out there. Maybe he's thought of that. Maybe next year, Mike Bobo assumes some of that role.

Maybe he does some of that Thursday. Can't hurt.

Georgia's offense isn't dynamic. Really hasn't been since Richt took over. It has flashes of "Ah, that's what Florida State always did" but not on a consistent basis.

Something seems to be missing. There are still some head-scratching calls that work enough but even inspire a "what was I thinking?" from Richt. Like a short pass to a 5-foot-8 fullback against Florida when there are targets a half-foot taller or a good running play waiting to be called.

Georgia taking that next step begins Thursday, as even Richt notes that the last game of this year is the first game of next year.

Purdue offers a great test.

The Bulldogs and Boilermakers are pretty even. Both have decent offenses and elite defenses.

Purdue has defenders like Shaun Phillips and Stuart Schweigert who will give Georgia's line and receivers a workout. Quarterback Kyle Orton has a better efficiency rating than Greene and mostly better numbers across the board, including positive yardage on the ground.

The Boilermakers are positioning themselves for next year, too. Their three losses this year were to bowl teams, including one to last year's national champ and one to a team that has a big say Thursday in the national championship.

Certainly, a loss Thursday doesn't really have much to do with how people play in August and for the following four months.

But how teams play in a bowl game gives a hint of what it's capable of. And Thursday, we might just get a major hint of whether the Bulldogs open the 2004 season as merely hopefuls again or legitimate contenders to play Jan. 4, 2005 in Miami.

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