- Chris Low, ESPN Senior Staff Writer
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JACKSONVILLE, Fla. -- Even after six consecutive wins, nobody is ready to classify Georgia as a great football team.
The harsh reality is that there are no great teams in the SEC’s Eastern Division, and at this point, finding one that belongs in the “very good” category might be a stretch.
But if you’re looking for resilient teams, teams that stay the course and teams that genuinely like a good scrap, then these Bulldogs are undoubtedly your team.
After being left for dead the second week of the season, No. 22 Georgia took its biggest step yet toward grinding its way into the SEC championship game with a come-from-behind 24-20 victory over archrival Florida at EverBank Field on Saturday.
“It’s just an amazing feeling, the camaraderie that we feel and the way this team fights,” Georgia senior cornerback Brandon Boykin said. “We feel like we can’t be stopped right now.”
The Bulldogs (6-2, 5-1) have won six in a row since starting the season 0-2. It hasn’t always been pretty along the way, and there are more than a few warts with this team. For starters, see special teams.
But they’ve been lights out on defense, make the plays they need to on offense and are suddenly in great shape in the East race.
South Carolina owns the head-to-head tiebreaker, but still has to play at Arkansas next week and then comes home to face Florida on Nov. 12. Georgia’s remaining two SEC games are home against Auburn on Nov. 12 and home against Kentucky on Nov. 19.
“The only thing we can do is take care of our business, but this team has done that for six games in a row now,” said Georgia outside linebacker Jarvis Jones, who had a monster game with four sacks and a forced fumble.
Brantley, limping around on a sprained ankle that had kept him out of the past two games, managed just 19 passing yards in the second half. That’s after throwing for 226 yards in the first half.
The Gators, who led 17-3 five minutes into the second quarter, were held to just one first down in the second half, as the Bulldogs took over the game defensively.
“They got a couple of plays on us early on, but we clamped down in the second half,” Boykin said. “And after we kept stopping them time after time, we knew we had their number.”
Speaking of having a team’s number, Florida had owned this rivalry for much of the past two decades.
In fact, it was only the Bulldogs’ fourth victory over the Gators in the past 22 meetings.
“Everyone has been saying how lopsided the series with Florida has been over the years, but this team was 0-0 going into this game,” said Georgia quarterback Aaron Murray, who threw both of his touchdown passes on fourth-down plays. “Now, we’re 1-0.”
Ending the Gators’ stranglehold was a huge relief for Georgia coach Mark Richt, who was 2-8 in this rivalry.
As the final seconds ticked down, Richt’s 15-year-old son, Zach, jumped into his arms and hugged Richt’s neck. It was only six weeks ago that Richt’s seat was scorching after the back-to-back losses to Boise State and South Carolina, and even some of the most loyal Georgia fans were wondering if Richt’s time in Athens was up.
“I know it was just a ballgame, but it seemed like a lot more than that,” Richt said. “Just to see our players and fans celebrate, in this place especially, was awesome.”
Several of the Georgia players took victory laps around the field celebrating with the crowd, which by the time the game ended, was decidedly red and black.
Jones gave an assist to former Florida coach Urban Meyer for giving him a little extra motivation.
The Gators heavily recruited Jones out of high school, and Jones can still remember something Meyer told him during the recruiting process.
“He told me, ‘If you don’t come to Florida, we’re going to beat Georgia every year,’ ” recounted Jones, who transferred to Georgia from USC. “I had that in the back of my mind all day today. A lot of the guys on the team did. This was our time.”
The common denominator in Georgia’s turnaround this season has been its mental toughness.
This is a team that’s not easily discouraged, and a lot of that goes back to a defense that doesn’t get the publicity that SEC brethren Alabama and LSU do, but is nonetheless locking down on opponents.
“We love going out there and pulling our team out of situations, because we’re going to fight to the death on this defense,” said Jones, who now has eight sacks on the season.
Even among the Georgia fans, Boykin said he could sense a lot of doubt this past week. He understands why. The past two Georgia teams to win SEC championships (in 2002 and 2005) found a way to leave this stadium after losing to the Gators.
“Everybody knew what this game was about,” Boykin said. “You had to prepare like it was just another game, but it’s not another game. It’s never just another game.
“Our mindset was that we were going to get it done no matter what.”
It’s a mindset that seems to be working just fine for these Dawgs.
17hGreg Ostendorf and Alex Scarborough