With heavy lifting done Bulldogs still cautious

Mark Richt

Mark Richt

ATHENS — There was so much emotion on the field and in the locker room, such jubilation and feeling of accomplishment, that on Sunday the reality surely hit the Georgia football program.

The Bulldogs have only played four games. There’s still quite a while to go.

There was no team in college football with a more daunting schedule than Georgia during the first month of the season. Three games against foes ranked in the top 10. Three games that potentially could define the season, all before October even arrived.

Now it’s over, Georgia has survived, and it’s on to the rest of the schedule. It’s a much easier schedule, at least on paper. The Bulldogs start out as double-digit favorites at Tennessee on Saturday.

“We didn’t focus as much on the first four games as much as everybody else did,” head coach Mark Richt said. “So I don’t know that we just said, ‘Oh my gosh, we’re through this stretch and now we’re gonna relax.’ I don’t really see that we’ve really been thinking that way.”

Georgia (3-1) jumped in both of the major polls Sunday, to No. 6 in both the Associated Press and coaches polls. And in a sign of Georgia’s status as a national-title contender, Saturday’s game was selected by CBS for its marquee 3:30 p.m. slot.

The big question now for Richt’s team is whether it will have its star tailback for that game. Sophomore Todd Gurley sprained his ankle in the second quarter of Saturday’s 44-41 win over LSU and did not return.

Even if Gurley can’t go, Georgia’s offense looked pretty good without him, thanks to quarterback Aaron Murray.

Georgia now ranks sixth in the nation in total offense, averaging 554 yards per game. That’s having played three teams ranked in the top 10 at the time. (Two still are, and South Carolina is No. 13.) Of the five teams ranked ahead of Georgia in total offense, only Texas A&M has faced one ranked team.

Meanwhile, Georgia’s defense is tied for 93rd nationally in scoring defense — and is last in the SEC. It’s a bit better in total yardage, ranking 69th nationally at 403.8 yards per game.

The quality of the competition is both a compliment to the offense and an excuse for the defense. But with this next game being against Tennessee — 93rd nationally in total offense and last in the SEC — it also means it’s time to show improvement.

“We’re not very good, in my opinion, unless we’re really locked in on both sides of the ball, (and) special teams,” Richt said. “If we’re not really focused and playing as hard as we can with the type of energy it takes to win, we’re just not very good. Every week we’ve just gotta keep that going.”

Georgia was certainly locked in against LSU.

“That was the biggest game, the most emotional game, I have ever been a part of,” junior receiver Michael Bennett said.

The Bulldogs now figure to be favored in all their remaining games. They have a win under their belt against South Carolina, one of their main rivals in the SEC East, and the other one, Florida, has lost a number of key players, including its quarterback and defensive star.

“We have all our goals in sight,” Bennett said. “All of the opportunities are presented. We’ve just performed so well in big situations. Our team’s awesome.”

Now here comes Tennessee (3-2), which struggled to beat South Alabama on Saturday, winning 31-24. The Volunteers’ two losses have come on the road to ranked teams (No. 2 Oregon and No. 19 Florida), but the Volunteers are clearly rebuilding under first-year head coach Butch Jones.

Georgia is looking for its fourth straight win over the Volunteers, who last beat the Bulldogs when their head coach was Lane Kiffin.

“We have a long season ahead, and we just have to keep it going,” Marshall said. “We can’t look past anyone. We’ve only played four games.”