ATHENS — When 90,000-plus fans last streamed into Sanford Stadium two weeks ago, Georgia’s football team was undefeated, ranked No. 8 in the nation and led by Heisman Trophy candidate Nick Chubb at tailback.
The fans will return Saturday night to watch a twice-beaten, unranked Georgia team, minus Chubb, take on Missouri.
The two-week downward spiral demonstrates how quickly and unexpectedly seasons evolve in college football — and not only at Georgia.
Just this week within the SEC East, South Carolina lost its coach when Steve Spurrier resigned with half the season still to play, and Florida lost its starting quarterback when Will Grier was suspended for a year by the NCAA for using a performance-enhancing drug.
“It’s amazing how fast things can change, you know?” Georgia coach Mark Richt said. “Whether through suspension or injury or whatever it may be — retirement of a coach — things do change. … It’s changing for everybody. Everybody has issues.”
“So now you have to manage it and try to find a way to keep everybody focused on the job at hand.”
Missouri is among the affected, too. For the third consecutive game, the Tigers will play without starting quarterback Maty Mauk, suspended for an undisclosed violation of team policies.
“Yeah, a lot of things have happened (around the SEC East),” Missouri coach Gary Pinkel said. “We’re playing with a freshman (quarterback) — first time in 39 years I’ve ever coached and played with a true freshman quarterback. There’s a lot of things going on.
“It’s interesting, but everybody’s got good depth and everybody’s going to certainly make adjustments and go.”
Drew Lock, who was playing high school football a year ago, will start at quarterback for Missouri under the lights in 92,746-seat Sanford Stadium. He had a rough game at home last week in a 21-3 loss to Florida.
The negative turn in Georgia’s season won’t be unnoticed by the fans as they return to Athens. The Bulldogs’ previous home game was one of their more anticipated in recent history: the Oct. 3 showdown with Alabama. But little has gone right for the Bulldogs since the start of that game, changing the complexion of a season and the disposition of a fan base.
The Bulldogs were blown out by Alabama, 38-10. A week later, they blew a 24-3 lead and lost 38-31 at Tennessee, a loss compounded by a devastating knee injury that ended Chubb’s season and turned the top tailback job over to Sony Michel.
Now the Bulldogs (4-2, 2-2 SEC) are unranked for the first time since the end of the 2013 season, and their primary goal of winning the SEC East is on shaky ground.
Yet, the landscape could shift yet again Saturday: If Georgia (4-2, 2-2 SEC) beats Missouri and if No. 8 Florida (6-0, 4-0) loses at No. 6 LSU without Grier, the Bulldogs would be back in the thick of the division race going into an Oct. 31 showdown with the Gators in Jacksonville.
Georgia lost control of its own destiny in the East last week, but would regain it with a win over Missouri, a Florida loss to LSU and a Tennessee loss to Alabama on Oct. 24.
Grier’s suspension came just as Florida appeared to be gathering steam and seemingly taking control of the division behind an improving offense and a dominant defense.
“Obviously everyone saw (news of Grier’s suspension), and were, like, ‘Whoa, that’s big,’” Georgia linebacker Jake Ganus said. “But as a team we really just need to focus on Missouri.”
Missouri has won the SEC East the past two seasons, but it already has lost as many SEC regular-season games this year (two) as it did the past two years combined (14-2).
Pinkel succinctly summed up how the Tigers are playing this season: “We’re struggling on offense, and we’re playing very good defense.” Indeed, Missouri (4-2, 1-2) leads the SEC in scoring defense at 13.5 points per game but is last in scoring offense at 18.3.
Given all the recent twists and turns in the SEC East, who knows what will happen next?
“I always say this: We live in a week-to-week season,” Tennessee coach Butch Jones said. “Every week is basically a new life. It’s a new road on your journey. … There’s always something different.”
SEC EAST AT A GLANCE
Team / SEC / Overall / Saturday
Florida / 4-0 / 6-0 / at LSU
Georgia / 2-2 / 4-2 / vs. Missouri
Kentucky / 2-2 / 4-2 / lost to Auburn on Thursday
Missouri / 1-2 / 4-2 / at Georgia
Tennessee / 1-2 / 3-3 / Off
Vanderbilt / 0-2 / 2-3 / at South Carolina
South Carolina / 0-4 / 2-4 / vs. Vanderbilt