Commentary

Georgia could still contend in SEC East

Originally Published: September 10, 2011
By Ivan Maisel | ESPN.com

ATHENS, Ga. -- Georgia lost to No. 12 South Carolina, 45-42, and there are plenty of directions in which to point the finger. The Gamecocks' defense scored two touchdowns and set up a third with a fumble return to the Bulldogs' 5. The Gamecocks' special teams scored on a fake punt.

When it ended, the Bulldogs fell to 0-2 for the first time in Mark Richt's 11 seasons. They are 14-14 dating to the beginning of the 2009 season. Those are the cold, hard facts.

And those facts totally miss what happened at Sanford Stadium on Saturday.

"Losing's not fun. Certainly didn't enjoy that part," Richt said. "As a head coach, I saw an awful lot of really great ingredients on this football team."

[+] EnlargeMark Richt
Dale Zanine/US PresswireGeorgia coach Mark Richt is taking heat in Athens for his 0-2 start.

When Georgia fans hear that, the only ingredient they reach for is a grain of salt. They shouldn't. They should listen. If Georgia plays the way it played Saturday, it will contend for the Southeastern Conference East Division championship.

"I saw guys play through pain," Richt said. "I saw guys make great plays. I saw guys be resilient after all kinds of adversity. ... Just a lot of really good things happened."

Richt saw that. Too bad his team's fans didn't. Judging by how long it took them to get SEC loud, they came to the game tentative. They didn't come in expecting Georgia to play well. If Bulldogs fans are honest with themselves, they won't point a finger until they're standing in front of a mirror.

If the Georgia fans hit the pause button on their complaints about what their team hasn't done, they might see a team that improved markedly from the one that lost to No. 5 Boise State, 35-21, last week. If the red-and-black faithful stop batting their eyes at Mississippi State coach Dan Mullen long enough, they might notice a Bulldogs team that fulfilled the essence of the breed.

This team kept sinking its teeth into South Carolina long after others would have turned tail. All the aforementioned Gamecocks touchdowns are the kind that can turn the momentum of a game. They didn't. Georgia came from behind twice in the second half to take the lead.

"You have those miscues and I thought they were huge," Richt said, "but that was four plays out of about 130, 140 plays. I thought overall they played with a lot of fight and spirit and thought they were very resilient throughout the game."

Yes, Georgia is 0-2. But Georgia is the only team that has played two ranked opponents in the first two weeks of the season.

"I guess there's some kind of prize for that," Richt said.

Richt speaks in a monotone. He walks around as if he took one too many Zyrtecs. He also has won two SEC titles and has a record of 96-36 (.727). The coach accused of lacking fire got so angry after South Carolina defensive lineman Melvin Ingram took a fake punt 68 yards for a touchdown in the second quarter that he flung his headset and his play-calling cards onto the field.

"I guess I wanted to show people I could get mad," Richt deadpanned. "I threw it pretty far actually. I was surprised. If I had a visor, I would have slammed it."

The last is a nod to South Carolina coach Steve Spurrier, whose team big-played its way to victory. When the Gamecocks look at the video, they will see a team that made big plays but couldn't make the little ones. Georgia's yards after contact had to reach three figures. Maybe South Carolina doesn't know how to tackle. Or maybe this young Georgia team is continuing to play hard.

"I feel like last year we probably would have bowed down," junior free safety Bacarri Rambo said. "But this year we still got that fight and hunger. We weren't going to let nobody tell us we couldn't win that game."

Georgia finished with 436 yards of total offense. Sophomore quarterback Aaron Murray threw for four touchdowns. Freshman Isaiah Crowell rushed for 118 yards and one touchdown on 16 carries despite taking a shot in the ribs early in the game that limited his playing time.

[+] EnlargeIsaiah Crowell
Dale Zanine-US PRESSWIREGeorgia freshman RB Isaiah Crowell says his exploits so far aren't any big deal. "All I do is play football."

Junior. Sophomore. Freshman. It's a young team. Richt sees something.

"We've got the right stuff in my opinion to be a really good team and I think we will be," Richt said.

Georgia doesn't have the game-breaking players that South Carolina does. The Bulldogs don't have a wide receiver like Alshon Jeffery (five catches, 85 yards, one touchdown). They don't have a bellcow like Marcus Lattimore, who rushed for 94 of his 176 yards in the fourth quarter, including the three yards that put South Carolina ahead to stay with 3:28 to play.

And Georgia doesn't have a defensive end like freshman Jadeveon Clowney, who sacked Murray and stripped him of the ball, allowing Ingram to scoop it up and score only 16 seconds after Lattimore's touchdown.

But Richt sees something. And if Bulldogs fans don't recognize it, they're not paying attention.

"I think we have enough of a talent base to get it done. ... The team that can win the tight ballgames is going to win the championships in our league. That's just how it goes. There's going to be a bunch of other ones. There are seven SEC games to go for us and for South Carolina and for Tennessee. There's a whole lot of ball to be played. ... You can count on us getting better. We're going to improve as we go."

Maybe the Georgia fans saw it, too. After the Dawgs came back to take a 35-31 lead, the Gamecocks gained only six yards on their next two downs. On third-and-4 at the South Carolina 27, the fans in Sanford Stadium let out the kind of roar that had been missing the whole game.

Sophomore Jordan Love got flagged for pass interference. Four plays later, Lattimore scored the go-ahead touchdown. OK, not perfect. But if Georgia fans match the intensity of their players, it will pay off for all of them.

Ivan Maisel is a senior writer for ESPN.com and hosts the ESPNU College Football podcast. Send your questions and comments to him at Ivan.Maisel@ESPN.com.

Ivan Maisel | email

Senior Writer, ESPN.com

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