SCOTT: Georgia hard to figure out

For a week, Georgia's last-second 20-17 victory over Vanderbilt didn't look like such a big deal for the Bulldogs.

After Vandy's 17-6 win over No. 6 South Carolina last Saturday, maybe the Bulldogs aren't so bad after all.


Maybe they aren't that great, either. Or maybe they're like every other team in the SEC Eastern Division. Not so bad. Not so great. Just trying to find themselves week to week.


On the same day No. 20 Tennessee lost 41-17 at Alabama and No. 8 Kentucky lost 45-37 at home to No. 14 Florida and South Carolina lost at home to Vanderbilt, the only SEC East team truly safe from harm was Georgia, and only because the Bulldogs (5-2, 3-2 SEC) had an open date.


With a 35-14 home victory over Oklahoma State, a 16-12 home loss to South Carolina, a 26-23 overtime win at Alabama, a 35-14 loss at Tennessee and the near miss at Vanderbilt, Georgia has been as difficult to figure out as any of the SEC's curious and confounding teams this season.


Add South Carolina coach Steve Spurrier to the list of SEC insiders who aren't sure what to think of the Bulldogs. Asked about having beaten Georgia this season Spurrier dismissed the win, saying, "It wasn't like they were some big, powerful team. They've actually lost five in a row to Eastern Division opponents. Kentucky and Vandy beat 'em last year."


He's right.


The victory over Vandy was Georgia's first over an SEC East team since an 18-0 win over South Carolina in the second game of the 2006 season. Entering Saturday's game against Florida in Jacksonville, Fla., for The Game Formerly Known As The World's Largest Outdoor Cocktail Party, the Bulldogs have lost 15 of their past 17 games against the Gators.


Then again, the Bulldogs haven't had an open date before the Florida game since 1991.


Florida, however, has had an open date before 14 of its past 15 games against Georgia and won all 14 games. When the Gators played the Bulldogs without an open date in 2004, Georgia quarterback David Greene passed for three touchdowns in a 31-24 victory.


Consider this as well: Georgia coach Mark Richt is 1-5 against the Gators but he's also 10-1 during the regular season against opponents following an open date, and he's won consecutive games after an open date.


So what's that mean for Georgia? Who knows. At this point not even Richt seems to know what to think of his enigmatic team.


"I just think that we're young more than anything else overall," Richt said. "We're just not at the point where we can mentally overcome things like fatigue, overcome things like momentum going against you."


The Bulldogs are not without their positives. For starters, there's plenty of talent on the roster. It might not be as mature as the coaches want it to be at this point, but there's enough talent to compete in the SEC.


One of the most talented young players is redshirt freshman Knowshon Moreno, who stepped up in response to injuries to two other tailbacks and carried the Bulldogs over Vanderbilt with 157 rushing yards on 28 carries. No Georgia back had carried so many times since Musa Smith rushed 37 times for 148 yards in a 31-17 victory over Ole Miss in 2002.


"He played fantastic," junior fullback Brannan Southerland told the Athens Banner-Herald. "I know he was tired.  ... Basically Knowshon had the whole load on his shoulders. He played great. He never flinched. He was tired but he never showed it."


It can be hard to beat a team that can run the ball effectively while also taking care of the ball. That's something the Bulldogs are doing well, entering the week leading the nation with only five turnovers.      


That's a big step for a team that turned the ball over five times in consecutive games to Mississippi State and Florida last year and finished tied for 107th in the nation by committing 31 turnovers, with 16 interceptions and 15 lost fumbles.


So far this season the Bulldogs have given away just one fumble while quarterback Matthew Stafford has given up four interceptions in seven games.


"That was just a point of emphasis coming in," tight end Tripp Chandler told the Banner-Herald. "Coming into the season that was an emphasis - ball security and ball control. I think it's paid off."


Even with those positives the Bulldogs still face plenty of questions. For one, Moreno is playing a significant role due in large part to injuries to seniors Thomas Brown and Kregg Lumpkin.


Brown suffered a broken collarbone against Ole Miss on Sept. 29 and Richt said last week he doesn't expect Brown to be back in time to play against Florida. Lumpkin had just recently returned from a broken thumb and is now out until the bowl game following last week's knee surgery for torn cartilage.


Beyond Moreno, the Bulldogs face considerable uncertainty. If he gets hurt the Bulldogs will turn to senior Jason Johnson, a former walk-on, as well as redshirt freshman Shaun Chapas and walk-on Kalvin Daniels.


"(Having only one back) puts more pressure on the starting running back," offensive coordinator Mike Bobo said. "But there are a lot of teams across the country that only have one back and rely heavily on him. Right now, (Moreno) is the go-to guy and we are going to ride him."


If the Bulldogs can run and protect the ball and play defense consistently they'd have three of the key elements possessed by most winning teams. Unfortunately for the Bulldogs they're not sure week-to-week, even quarter-to-quarter, what to expect from their defense.


"I don't know if we are mean enough to be considered great right now," Richt has said. "They are just about like the rest of the team. Some days are great days and some are not so great days. It has been up and down, but we are not a dominating bunch right now."


It would also help if the passing game was more productive, but it's loaded with concerns – starting with an offensive line that is young and often uncertain.


"We're playing three freshmen," Stafford said. "Three freshmen on the offensive line in the SEC, it is unbelievable."


Stafford has produced his share of big plays but he's also produced his share of mistakes and missed opportunities. Bobo would like to see him be more patient in the pocket and more consistent, but that has been elusive up to this point.


"If I knew (how to fix Stafford), we would do it," Bobo said the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. "Maybe it is more concentration and more focus."


Stafford could also use more help from his receivers. Various receivers have taken turns making plays but none have stepped up as the Bulldogs' true go-to receiver. Sean Bailey caught 16 passes over the first four games but has caught only three since.


Coaching is another area of concern. Richt's critics insist he hasn't done enough to light a fire under this team. Richt is seen as a calm, steady force by his supporters while his critics see him as too soft.


Richt's personality is either a blessing or a curse, depending on how supporters and critics choose to see it. Supporters would insist his personality has allowed Georgia to win 24 of 28 road games under Richt. Critics would suggest Georgia's recent struggles against SEC East teams can be attributed to a team that isn't as fiery as it needs to be.


"He is calm, but when the time is needed to be a spark or to light a fire under certain people's behinds, he's definitely capable of doing that," Bailey said. "It's not an everyday thing, so you know if he does do it, it's because of something serious. ... He doesn't let his emotions get the best of him. He's always mellowed out, no matter what kind of adversity we are facing. It trickles down to the team and is the reason why we can handle so much, and why in the Vanderbilt game, we can be down 10 at half-time and not panic and come back and win it."


It remains to be seen how all those positives and negatives will play out against Florida. Will the Bulldogs come up with answers to their questions or just produce more questions against the Gators? Stay tuned.




Richard Scott is a Birmingham-based sports writer, author and Tiger Rag's SEC columnist. Reach him at

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