ATHENS, Ga. -- The clock had barely hit zero on an upset win over Florida when Georgia’s best player reminded his teammates that they hadn’t accomplished their main goals yet.
“Like Jarvis Jones said after our game against Florida, he said, ‘This victory really doesn’t mean anything unless we keep winning,’ ” Georgia coach Mark Richt recalled. “Of course he’s talking about the race for the East Division, so we know that we’ve got to win. We know that we’ve got to continue to play like we did this last game to really give us our best chance.”
Jones certainly did enough to put Richt’s Bulldogs in this position by turning in one of the best individual defensive performances in the history of Georgia’s most heated rivalry. And in doing so, he not only prevented the Gators from clinching the SEC East title, he put his team back in the lead to defend its division title.
“It’s a huge win for us, especially coming out here and [Florida was] No. 2 in the nation and it put us back in the driver’s seat to possibly go to the SEC [championship game] if we continue to do what we’re supposed to do,” Jones said.
The No. 6 Bulldogs (7-1, 5-1 SEC) still need to beat Ole Miss (5-3, 2-2) this Saturday and Auburn (1-7, 0-6) the following weekend to secure the program’s first back-to-back division titles since 2002-03. With a Georgia loss, Florida (7-1, 6-1) can slip back into the driver’s seat by beating Missouri (4-4, 1-4) this Saturday.
This is still rarified air for most of the players on Georgia’s roster, however. Last season marked the first time since 2007 that the Bulldogs still harbored legitimate division-title hopes by this point on the schedule. And now they must recapture the intensity that helped them beat a hated rival last weekend to beat an Ole Miss team that seems to be improving rapidly under first-year head coach Hugh Freeze.
The Rebels hadn’t won a conference game since October 2010 -- a stretch of 16 games -- until they beat Auburn 41-20 two weeks ago. They followed that by beating Arkansas 30-27 last Saturday with a 31-yard Bryson Rose field goal as time expired. All that after giving Alabama and Texas A&M closer games than either opponent likely expected.
“What happens is you start tasting success and you start getting excited and you start believing. That’s what’s happening right now,” Richt said. “They’re on the rise; they’re on a very positive rise right now. Coach Freeze has got them going. So when you play teams that are getting used to winning, they’re very hard to beat.”
But there is a vast difference between notching wins against Auburn and slumping Arkansas and coming to Athens to beat a top-10 Georgia club, and Freeze understands that reality. He views Saturday’s game as a valuable measuring stick of exactly how much progress his Rebels have made over the last several weeks.
“It will be another step to kind of see how we’re maturing. It’s a tall task,” Freeze said at his Monday news conference. “They’re an excellent football team. I don’t see many weaknesses at all, if any. Coach Richt is a fine coach, and he’s one of the good guys in this business. You kind of find yourself pulling for them when you’re not playing them. We’ve got a great challenge.”
And Georgia faces challenges of its own. Although they have shown flashes of the explosiveness many expected from a team stocked with veterans, the Bulldogs have struggled to string together consistent performances this season. Aside from simply handling Freeze’s resurgent Rebels club, the Bulldogs still have plenty to prove about whether they should be included among the nation’s top teams.
“It’s a matter of just sticking together, keep sawing wood and all we’ve done is make [the Ole Miss game] big. That’s really all we’ve done,” Georgia defensive coordinator Todd Grantham said. “So it’s a great win. This is why you want to coach at a place like the University of Georgia, but the bottom line is we’ve got two games left to get to where we want to go.”