- David Ching, ESPN Staff Writer
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ATHENS, Ga. -- Mark Richt has maintained for weeks -- even before his Georgia team began to deal with a rash of injuries to key offensive players -- that the Bulldogs aren't good enough to expect to win easily if they don't play with focus and high effort.
So it should come as no surprise that Georgia's coach expects the No. 15 Bulldogs (4-2, 3-1 SEC) to have a fight on their hands when they visit Vanderbilt (3-3, 0-3) on Saturday.
“There's nothing that I have seen that would make me think that it's going to be anything different,” Richt said after Wednesday's practice. “Nothing.”
And why would he? The Bulldogs are still without tailback Todd Gurley -- Richt said he likely won't play Saturday because of an ankle sprain -- receiver Michael Bennett, safety Tray Matthews and three offensive stars (tailback Keith Marshall and receivers Malcolm Mitchell and Justin Scott-Wesley) who suffered season-ending knee injuries over the last several weeks.
Without them, Georgia's once-explosive offense has sputtered in a narrow win against Tennessee and last week's 41-26 home loss to Missouri. And they will likely play without them for another game in hopes that they will return for the Nov. 2 showdown with Florida.
“It was just a little uncertainty, and that happens,” Georgia quarterback Aaron Murray said of the Bulldogs' lack of offensive rhythm against Missouri, when they turned the ball over four times. “We've just got to keep working at it.”
Turnovers are one of the key factors that Richt identified for the Vanderbilt game. Georgia’s struggling defense has barely generated any thus far. And when the offense has turned it over, as it did against Clemson and Missouri, the Bulldogs have lost.
“Obviously our turnover ratio is not what it should be,” Richt said. “We've lost a couple games where we were minus-1 and minus-4, the two games we've lost. We need to win that. Third downs on both sides of the ball have not been good enough. Those factors are probably the biggest on my mind right now.”
Those two factors have been a talking point for defensive coordinator Todd Grantham, as well. Missouri converted five of 12 third downs, even after the Bulldogs defended the Tigers well early in many of those series. It's part of the learning process, Grantham said, while his numerous young starters are learning to perform more consistently.
“The end result sometimes isn't what you want it, but when you go back and look, first-down defense, we had a lot of first-down sacks that were a direct [result] of the way the secondary played and those kind of things,” Grantham said. “And that allowed us to get them into second-and-7-plus.
“The bottom line is we didn't have any turnovers and we didn't get off the field on third down. That's the bottom line, and when you extend drives and people that are averaging over 500 yards a game have more plays, then they're going to get some points.”
Vanderbilt has also struggled with turnover margin and third-down defense. Its minus-2 ratio is tied for 11th in the SEC and it is 10th in the league by allowing opponents to convert 41.4 percent of third downs.
If Georgia can solve those issues, the Bulldogs understand a win will keep them in the thick of the SEC East race. Missouri (6-0, 2-0) still has a number of difficult league games ahead and must play without quarterback James Franklin, who separated his shoulder last week.
Georgia recovered from division losses in each of the last two seasons and still claimed the East title by winning out afterward, and that is the Bulldogs' goal as they move forward.
“All of the seniors have done a great job of making sure guys realize that it's a long season,” Murray said. “It is the SEC. People are going to be beating people every week. We've just got to take care of business now and make sure we put ourselves in the situation that if Missouri does lose two games, we're right there to take over the East.”