ATHENS, Ga. -- The final score does not fully tell the tale, but those who watched Georgia start slowly before pulling away for a 37-10 win against Ole Miss on Saturday -- following sluggish offensive starts in the Bulldogs' previous three games -- can detect a trend.
If the sixth-ranked Bulldogs (8-1, 6-1 SEC) can't find a way to start games with more efficiency, they realize it very well might come back to bite them at some point.
"Playing better teams, playing Alabama or playing whoever else, I don't really think we can start off that slow," said Georgia cornerback Damian Swann, who recovered two fumbles against Ole Miss. "We need to start off first snap in order to give ourselves a chance to win."
Nearly half of Georgia's 251 offensive yards in the first two quarters came on a pair of long touchdown passes -- a 66-yard "rooskie" pass from Aaron Murray to an uncovered Marlon Brown and a 40-yard bullet to Tavarres King with three seconds left in the half -- but the Bulldogs otherwise struggled mightily.
The touchdown pass to King gave Georgia a 14-10 halftime lead after Ole Miss held a 10-0 lead earlier in the second quarter -- just the second time this season that the Bulldogs trailed by double digits.
"I thought they outplayed us in the first half, especially their defense versus our offense," Georgia coach Mark Richt said. "We outscored them, but they outplayed us if that makes any sense."
Those two plays were immensely valuable in swinging momentum Georgia's way. And the second nearly didn't happen, as Murray was sacked on the previous two plays before the touchdown pass to King and then had to avoid a third straight sack before scrambling right with the clock pushing toward zero. Instead, he pulled a touchdown pass out of thin air and gave his team a lead at intermission.
"To score right there when we basically screwed up a one-minute drive there -- very poor clock management on my part and the quarterback's part," offensive coordinator Mike Bobo said. "For him to make that play was huge … We thought if we could ever get going, we could do some things and we were able to do it tonight."
The Rebels (5-4, 2-3) never rebounded after losing the lead, mustering just 55 yards of total offense in the second half as the Bulldogs steadily took control. After allowing five sacks in the first half, Georgia's offensive line held the Rebels sackless in the second half. And Murray found a rhythm in the third quarter, going 9-for-11 for 143 yards as the Bulldogs extended their lead to 30-10.
"We had some big plays early on, but never a consistent drive where we moved the ball," said Murray, who finished 21-for-28 for 384 yards, four touchdowns and no interceptions. "So that's what [Richt] really wanted and I think we gave it to him the first two drives, really moving the ball down the field pretty nicely and punching in two more touchdowns."
Georgia never climbed back into the game after starting slowly against South Carolina, but the Bulldogs' offense picked it up to varying degrees in the ensuing wins against Kentucky, Florida and Ole Miss after sputtering out of the gate.
The Bulldogs still won all three games since the South Carolina loss, however, setting up exactly the scenario that resulted in their first SEC title under Richt in 2002. They will win the Eastern Division title next week if they go to Auburn (2-7, 0-6) next Saturday and win.
The Tigers -- who snapped a five-game losing streak by beating New Mexico State 42-7 on Saturday -- are in the midst of one of the most disappointing seasons in the modern era of Auburn football.
But the Bulldogs are in a must-win situation, as Florida's 14-7 win over Missouri on Saturday means that the Gators will claim the division title if the Bulldogs slip up on the Plains. And Richt reminded his players of that reality as soon as the dust settled on Saturday's victory.
"We know now that it's down to one game to win the right to go back to Atlanta. And we know that Auburn will be very ready to play," Richt said. "We know going there is a tough place to play, we know that Auburn fans don't really like Georgia a whole lot and we know that we're going to have to be at our best.
"I told the guys, 'Get your mind right right now. Get your jaw set. We've got seven more days before we can have an opportunity to finish.' So we just know we've got a lot of work cut out for us."