Even if the Dawgs manage to win out — and that remains a major challenge for a team that continues to look largely ineffectual offensively — the 2015 football season still will be viewed by many (fans included) as a disappointment.
Make no mistake, I’m thrilled Georgia managed a 20-13 victory over Auburn, its longest-standing rival (however underwhelming the performance may have been at times). And wins over the main in-state rival and the other major Georgia program to wind up the season certainly would put a smile on the faces of most Bulldogs fans.
Not all, though. After the win over Kentucky, I saw a supposed fan of the Dawgs post on social media that he was sorry Georgia didn’t lose because it would have hastened Mark Richt’s demise.
Really?! OK, no matter how you feel about the head coach, if you don’t pull for the Dawgs to win every game, no matter the circumstances, then you’re more of a casual follower of the program than a true fan.
On the other hand, even if UGA wins both its remaining regular-season games and its bowl game, the resulting 10-win campaign would remain something of a “lost” season to much of the Bulldog Nation because of the losses to Alabama, Tennessee and Florida, two of which were basically blow-outs. It’s not just how many you lose, but how you lose them that characterizes a college football season.
A 10-win season wouldn’t change the fact that significant improvement is needed in Athens, whether there’s a change at the top of the coaching staff or not. While it may not be entirely fair, the growing national perception of the Georgia program as an underachiever isn’t something the powers that be at UGA should take lightly.
As for the latest “baby step,” as I previously called it, in salvaging some semblance of respectability this season, Saturday’s hard-earned win over Auburn, which gave Georgia the series lead in the Deep South’s Oldest Rivalry, was mostly more of the same with a twist: a less than impressive performance by the struggling offense and its transfer quarterback (especially on third down), a terrific second half by the much improved defense (after some worrying missteps in the first half), and the margin of victory surprisingly provided by an outstanding special teams play (as opposed to the more usual catastrophe).
In a game that proved this year’s preseason prognostications were not even very educated guesses, the predicted winners of the SEC East and West limped into their 119th meeting with not much more on the line than not wanting to lose to your second-biggest (or, in Georgia’s case, third-biggest) rival.
Yes, the Dawgs ultimately looked better than the Tigers and wound up winning after trailing 10-3 at halftime, but since the former Alabama Polytechnic Institute occupies the basement of the conference’s western division and Georgia still had a hard time putting them away, that’s not saying a whole lot.
Offensively, Georgia still stunk up the place for the most part, with its second-lowest output of the season. The two most obvious reasons continued to be mediocre quarterback play and uninspired playcalling.
When it comes to Greyson Lambert, apparently Virginia’s coaches knew something. It wasn’t so much his meh numbers in the passing game (12-of-17 for 97 yards, no touchdowns) as it was his continued poor mechanics and decision-making this deep into the season, whether it was throwing behind a closely covered Malcolm Mitchell on fourth down at the Auburn 2 or Lambert taking an 11-yard loss on a sack on third-and-1, when he easily could have thrown the ball away.
If you want to know just how little faith the Georgia coaching staff apparently has in Lambert, the Dawgs actually ran a running play after a series of penalty flags resulted in 3rd-and-41 on one series.
But, back to those third-and-1 calls. Part of the Georgia offense’s identity this season under Brian Schottenheimer unfortunately appears to be its inability to gain just 1 yard when it needs it. There were several more instances of that Saturday. Overall, the Dawgs were just 5-of-14 on third-down conversion attempts and 1-of-2 on fourth down tries.
Also, I realize that, as Richt said after the game, the Dawgs have come to terms with who they are this season: a grind-it-out offense aimed mainly at eating up clock. Still, after Georgia recovered a Tigers fumble deep in Auburn territory in the fourth quarter, the ensuing uninspired calls looked suspiciously like playing for a field goal, which is all Georgia got out of the turnover.
Defensively, the Dawgs got off to a bit of a rough start as Auburn marched down the field on its first drive and had a number of successful outside runs in the first half. It was beginning to look like the 2014 Florida game again, but this time Jeremy Pruitt made the needed adjustments and the Georgia defense basically shut down Auburn’s offense in the second half.
It was a hard-hitting performance by the Georgia D, as witnessed not only in the three turnovers that loomed large in the game (especially causing and recovering an Auburn fumble on the Bulldogs goal line), but even on the sideline, where a spirited slap in the helmet from amped up inside linebackers coach Mike Ekeler brought defensive back Rico McGraw to his knees.
However, the most unusual aspect of Saturday’s game was the fact that, not only did Georgia’s special teams not make any costly mistakes, they actually played well, with Marshall Morgan making both his field goal attempts, Isaiah McKenzie zig-zagging his way for a score on a 53-yard punt return (he also scored on a jet sweep in an offensive series), Brice Ramsey continuing to boom his punts, and a heads-up play by Mitchell to recover an onside kick by the Tigers, snuffing out Auburn’s last chance.
Overall, it wasn’t a game that Dawgs fans will be telling their grandchildren about. But, in a season of diminished expectations, it was a win, and over a rival at that.
Such things aren’t to be sniffed at in 2015.
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— Bill King, Junkyard Blawg
Bill King is an Athens native and a graduate of the University of Georgia’s Henry W. Grady College of Journalism and Mass Communication. A lifelong Bulldogs fan, he sold programs at Sanford Stadium as a teen and has been a football season ticket holder since leaving school. He has worked at the AJC since college and spent 10 years as the Constitution’s rock music critic before moving into copy editing on the old afternoon Journal. In addition to blogging, he’s now a story editor.