Georgia Bulldogs: Garrison Smith
“We're not talking about that yet,” the Georgia linebacker said after last Saturday's double-overtime win against Georgia Tech. “The season's not over yet. But when the season gets over, we'll start talking about those things and people will remember these [comebacks against Auburn and Georgia Tech].”
Step one in the evolution of a defense that loses only one senior starter -- defensive lineman Garrison Smith -- will be to put together complete games, not just decent halves. Against both Auburn and Georgia Tech, in particular, disastrous starts forced the Bulldogs to mount dramatic rallies in the game's waning possessions.
Wilson has a point. The starts were horrendous -- Auburn scored 27 points and Georgia Tech 20 before halftime -- but Georgia's defense was fairly solid in the second half of more than just those two dramatic comeback bids.
The Bulldogs were awful defensively for most of the first month of the season, with a 28-point second half by Tennessee in Game 5 perhaps ranking as the low point. But since then, Todd Grantham's defense has generally improved as the games progressed.
Since the Tennessee game, the Bulldogs allowed 10 second-half touchdowns in seven games -- half of those coming when opponent scoring started at the 50-yard line or closer because of errors by Georgia's offense or special teams. In the last month of the regular season, the Bulldogs allowed seven second-half points to both Georgia Tech and Kentucky, zero to Appalachian State and 16 to Auburn, although the final six came on a 73-yard Ricardo Louis touchdown catch for the game-winning score after Bulldogs safeties Josh Harvey-Clemons and Tray Matthews failed to bat down an off-target pass.
“We said it felt like it was like the Auburn game,” Herrera said of the Bulldogs' rally from a 20-0 deficit against Georgia Tech. “We just had to step up and we had to make plays real quick before it got ugly.”
The Tech game was already bordering on ugly before the Bulldogs salvaged it with their second-half rally. They argued afterward that the comeback was an example of their season-long persistence, even against long odds.
“Everybody knows about the tipped pass at Auburn and people wanted to know how we would bounce back off that. Well, we're 2-0 off that loss,” said sophomore cornerback Sheldon Dawson, who was victimized in coverage on several of Tech's biggest passes. “It's not about how you fall because you're going to fall in this game of football. You're going to fall many times. It's just you've got to get back up.
“Like for myself, to me I had a poor game, but how did I respond? I just tried to keep playing and show my teammates that I'm playing to get better on the next drive.”
The hope for Grantham and his staff is that the rocky moments that Dawson and many other youthful defenders experienced this season will become learning tools as they mature. The 2013 defense was simply not consistent enough, as its program-worst point (opponents averaged 29.4 ppg) and yardage (381.2 ypg) totals reflect, but there were occasional flashes of promise, as well.
He used the game-ending, fourth-down pass breakup to clinch the win against Georgia Tech as an example -- which easily could have been the third such key fourth-down stop by his defense had one of his safeties properly defended Auburn's last-gasp throw or had an official kept the flag in his pocket instead of incorrectly penalizing Wilson for targeting on a fourth-quarter pass breakup against Vanderbilt.
“That's the third fourth-down situation that we've had this year. We had one at Vandy, we had one at Auburn and we had one here,” Grantham said. “We've got a lot of young players on our team that will grow from it and they'll get confidence from it and we're going to develop them and move forward and win a bunch of games.”
The talent clearly exists for Grantham's projection to become reality. Harvey-Clemons, Matthews, outside linebackers Jordan Jenkins and Leonard Floyd, defensive end Ray Drew, Herrera and Wilson -- all of them should be back in 2014. If they and their defensive cohorts can perform with discipline that matches their physical capabilities, Georgia's defense could take a step forward next fall.
It's on Grantham and company to ensure that such progress occurs.
“Part of coaching and part of a program and part of being what we want to be, when it's going not the way you want it, you find a way to battle back,” Grantham said.
Let's look back over the season and recap some of the highs and lows:
MVP: This has to go to Murray, who broke multiple SEC career passing records as a senior. The Kentucky game started out as a senior-night tribute to the four-year starter, only to see it end in heartbreak when he suffered the knee injury in the second quarter that ended his season. He returned for his senior season to win a championship, although injuries and a shaky defense prevented Murray from reaching that goal. Nonetheless, his leadership prevented what could have become a major mess when many of Georgia's best offensive skill players were missing in the middle of the season.
Wildest finish: There's no shortage of competition in this category, as Saturday's Tech game was only the most recent Georgia game that was decided in the closing moments. That's what happens when seven of your 12 games are decided by a touchdown or less. But the winner here has to be the Auburn game, when the Bulldogs rallied from a 20-point, fourth-quarter deficit to take a 38-37 lead on Murray's fourth-down touchdown scramble with 1:49 remaining. Murray's heroics were for naught, however, as Nick Marshall hit Ricardo Louis on a deflected 73-yard touchdown pass with 25 seconds remaining, after the pass somehow slipped through Georgia's Josh Harvey-Clemons and Tray Matthews.
Surprise performer: Ramik Wilson. He was certainly not perfect -- particularly in pass coverage -- but Wilson became the SEC's tackles leader by playing nearly every important down and always hustling to the ball. He didn't make much of an impact in his first two seasons while rotating between inside and outside linebacker, but Wilson was a valuable contributor in leading the team with 128 tackles and tying with Jordan Jenkins for the team lead with 11 tackles for loss. He also made one of the Bulldogs' biggest defensive plays of the season when he deflected a Vad Lee pass in the second overtime against Georgia Tech, enabling Damian Swann to knock the ball away for the game-ending incompletion.
Worst defeat: The Auburn loss might have been more painful, but the 31-27 defeat at Vanderbilt was more avoidable. The Commodores outscored Georgia 17-0 in the fourth quarter -- a comeback expedited by a targeting flag on a fourth-quarter pass breakup by Wilson. The penalty was overturned upon review, but it still resulted in a first down and a 15-yard mark-off down to Georgia's 15-yard line, and eventually a Vandy touchdown. Georgia's ineptitude also contributed to the implosion -- including costly turnovers and an overall lack of aggression on offense -- which made it a particularly galling defeat.
Star in the making: Hutson Mason. Several players could figure in here -- Scott-Wesley, outside linebacker Leonard Floyd and safety Harvey-Clemons immediately come to mind -- but this will almost certainly be Mason's team next season. He overcame a shaky start against Tech to lead the Bulldogs back to an overtime win by completing 22 of 36 passes for 299 yards, two touchdowns and an interception. Let's keep in mind that it was the first start of his career, on the road, against arguably Georgia's biggest rival.
Biggest disappointment: We all knew the score when the season started. Georgia's defense lost almost every significant player from last season, minus defensive lineman Garrison Smith, inside linebacker Amarlo Herrera, outside linebacker Jordan Jenkins and cornerback Swann. A reasonable expectation was for the group to struggle against a challenging early schedule and make rapid improvements as the season progressed. Only that improvement never truly occurred with any consistency. Georgia's defense is better off now than it was when the season started, but there is too much talent on that side of the ball for the Bulldogs to keep making the bone-headed mistakes that plagued them for too much of the season.
Biggest relief: The overtime win against Tennessee kept the Bulldogs in the top 10 for another week, but the rally from an early 20-0 deficit against Georgia Tech will likely be the one more Georgia fans remember. Richt has dominated the Yellow Jackets throughout his tenure, but things didn't look promising when Lee was picking apart Georgia's secondary and Mason and the offense were struggling. A second-quarter touchdown drive helped them to settle down, and they went on to deliver an emotional comeback victory.
Best performance: Gurley's four-touchdown performance against Tech (or his early touchdowns against Florida in his return from a month-long absence) would certainly qualify here. But let's go with one of two showings -- and you can't lose with either one -- by Murray against South Carolina or LSU. Murray faced consistent attacks that he shrunk in the spotlight during his early years, but he largely eliminated those criticisms this season. He was nearly perfect against South Carolina, ending the Gamecocks' three-game series winning streak by going 17-for-23 for 309 yards and four touchdowns. Two games later, he went 20-for-34 for four touchdowns and one interception, plus a rushing score, against LSU and hit Scott-Wesley with the game-winning 25-yard touchdown pass with 1:47 remaining.
“Everybody should be back,” Richt said on his Sunday evening teleconference. “Everybody's got to do what they've got to do, as far as if they have opportunities and that kind of thing. We've got some things we've certainly got to get better at, but continuity is a good thing for Georgia.”
Richt's Bulldogs were one of the bigger disappointments in the SEC this season, thanks in part to a spate of injuries that helped Georgia fall from a No. 5 preseason ranking to an 8-4 mark at the end of Saturday's double-overtime win against Georgia Tech.
Georgia's defense was also a glaring weakness for much of the season, tying for 47th nationally in total defense (381.3 ypg) and ranking 80th in scoring (29.4 ppg). The Bulldogs allowed the most points for a season covering at least 12 games (353) and highest scoring average in program history, creating media speculation over much of the season as to whether defensive coordinator Todd Grantham and the defensive staff would return.
Richt defended the group's performance, pointing toward the considerable youth on a defense that lost 12 key players from last season and which had only one senior starter -- defensive lineman Garrison Smith.
Nonetheless, he added that the coaches and players must improve to better handle such situations in the future.
“There's a lot of areas that we all need to improve on, but I think that we've got the right group of guys and we have the right staff,” Richt said. “We've got to make sure that we take care of business as far as improving, maturing and keeping that continuity.”
ATHENS, Ga. -- The last two Georgia-Georgia Tech games haven't been very competitive, with the Bulldogs winning 31-17 in 2011 and 42-10 last season. But with Georgia Tech (7-4) boasting a much-improved defense and Georgia (7-4) trotting out a first-time starting quarterback in Hutson Mason, today's meeting in Atlanta doesn't feel like a gimme for the Bulldogs.
Let's take a look at five key factors in today's game:
Defending Tech's option: The first objective for every team that faces Georgia Tech is to slow down the Yellow Jackets' vaunted option running game. The Yellow Jackets rank fifth nationally in rushing yards with 316.1 per game. Of those yards, ESPN Stats and Information reports that 200.1 come before contact with the first defender, which ranks second nationally behind Auburn's 209.5. Speaking of the Tigers, Georgia struggled against Auburn's rushing attack -- which is second nationally at 320.3 ypg -- two weeks ago, surrendering 323 yards on the ground. The Bulldogs need to do a much better job than that if they are to win today at Bobby Dodd Stadium.
How will Mason fare?: Mason played great in relief of the injured Aaron Murray last Saturday against Kentucky, but he's had a whole week to dwell on how he'll make his first career start against one of Georgia's biggest rivals. He seems to have the mentality to handle that pressure, but it would be understandable if he experiences some jitters. Nonetheless, Mason has performed extremely well in limited action this season. He led Georgia to four touchdowns and a field goal in five possessions against Kentucky, finishing 13-for-19 for 189 yards and a touchdown and also rushing for a 1-yard score. He also played the fourth quarter against Appalachian State and went 11-for-16 for 160 yards, one touchdown and one interception. Georgia Tech's pass defense ranks 82nd nationally, allowing 238.5 yards per game, so Mason should have some chances for big plays. Now we'll see if he can take advantage.
Running against the Jackets: Georgia Tech has defended the run effectively, ranking 10th nationally with an average of 104.2 yards allowed per game. Of course it helps that the Yellow Jackets faced teams that ranked 90th (North Carolina, which rushed for 101 yards against Tech), 110th (Virginia Tech, 55 yards) and 112th (Pittsburgh, minus-5 yards) nationally while attempting to run the ball, and they also held FCS opponent Elon to 89 rushing yards in a season-opening blowout and FCS Alabama A&M to 47 yards last weekend. Tech has only faced one rushing offense that ranks in the national top 40, BYU, and the Cougars ran for a healthy 189 yards and three scores against the Yellow Jackets. Georgia ranks 56th nationally with an average of 179.5 rushing yards per game, although its running game has been more productive lately since All-SEC tailback Todd Gurley (781 yards, 6.3 yards per carry) returned from a three-game absence.
Blocking blunders: Considering the number of errors Georgia has committed in the kicking game this season, the Bulldogs' coaches are likely concerned about blocked punts today. Georgia Tech is tied for the national lead with three blocked punts -- all by sophomore defensive back Chris Milton. One of the other teams with three blocked punts, North Texas, blocked a Collin Barber punt for a touchdown when the Bulldogs hosted the Mean Green earlier this season. On the flip side, Georgia was credited with blocked kicks against both Appalachian State and Auburn and deflected a punt against Kentucky that rolled forward to the Wildcats' 39-yard line.
Applying pressure: Georgia Tech's offense is not built for comebacks, so building an early lead would be extremely beneficial for Georgia. The Yellow Jackets are a subpar passing team -- they rank 119th nationally with 119.6 ypg -- so making them do something they don't want to do, and are not very good at doing, is a recipe for success. That would allow Bulldogs pass rushers such as Leonard Floyd (tied for sixth in the SEC with 6.5 sacks and tied for third with 23 quarterback pressures), Ray Drew (six sacks) and Garrison Smith (six sacks) to make life difficult for Tech quarterback Vad Lee. Lee ranks 93rd nationally with a 47.7 opponent-adjusted Total QBR. A score of 50 is considered average on the zero-to-100 rating scale. In comparison, Murray's QBR this season is 85.5 (sixth nationally among qualified QBs) and Mason's is 92.4.
Smith's first substantial playing time actually came as the result of a questionable cut block that knocked DeAngelo Tyson out of Georgia's 2011 win over the Yellow Jackets. Smith, then a green sophomore, replaced Tyson in the lineup and recorded seven tackles and 1.5 tackles for a loss, earning SEC Co-Defensive Lineman of the Week honors in the process.
Defensive players don't like dealing with triple-option offenses like Georgia Tech (7-4) and Georgia Southern run, and specifically don't like having to keep their eyes out for pesky offensive linemen who consistently dive at their knees.
“It's just like being out on the streets: you've got to keep your head on a swivel and watch your surroundings,” Smith said. “Protect yourself at all times.”
Otherwise you could suffer Tyson's fate. Or even if you manage to protect yourself, you might fail to fill the proper gap and be the goat when the Yellow Jackets break a long run.
That was the issue for Florida's defense last weekend against Georgia Southern, when the Eagles ran 54 times for 429 yards and upset the Gators 26-20.
Afterward, Gators coach Will Muschamp admitted that the challenges presented in defending that scheme leveled the playing field for the FCS Eagles.
“That's why a lot of these schools run it -- because it takes talent out of the equation,” Muschamp told reporters this week. “A lot of talented guys don't like having somebody at their knees every snap, either.”
Georgia (7-4) has improved in each successive game against Georgia Tech's option since Todd Grantham became defensive coordinator in 2010. That first year, the Yellow Jackets ran 77 times for 411 yards and Georgia barely held on for a 42-34 win. The Bulldogs have won easily in each of the last two seasons, with Tech running 53 times for 243 yards in a 31-17 loss in 2011 and 67 times for 302 yards in last season's 42-10 defeat where their only touchdown drive came against reserves in the fourth quarter.
The problem for Georgia, however, is that only three regulars -- Smith, cornerback Damian Swann and outside linebacker Jordan Jenkins -- have played much against the Yellow Jackets' unique attack. It's entirely different from what Georgia's players and coaches see the rest of the season, so that real-time experience is valuable for all parties.
“But the bottom line, it gets down to players making plays, players executing, being where they need to be, playing with good pad level, playing physical and doing all the things you need to do to stop that kind of offense. Because it's really a team-oriented defense to play against, meaning you've got to take care of your assignment and trust someone's going to be somewhere else because if you don't do that, then you create a seam and that's when they get the explosive plays.”
Tech has largely been successful in that regard. As per usual under Coach Paul Johnson, the Yellow Jackets rank among the national leaders in rushing offense (fourth at 316.1 yards per game). They have scored 16 touchdowns -- 11 rushing, five passing -- that covered at least 20 yards and rushed for 200-plus yards in every game but one. In fact, they've rushed for more than 250 in all but their losses to Virginia Tech (129 yards) and BYU (237).
As long as Georgia's first-time starting quarterback Hutson Mason and his cohorts keep Georgia's high-scoring offense on track, the Bulldogs don't need to hold Tech to fewer than 200 rushing yards to win. If the Bulldogs keep grinding against Tech's deliberate attack and consistently arrive where they're supposed to be to make stops, they should survive.
“Everybody's got to do their job,” said Georgia linebacker Ramik Wilson, the SEC's leading tackler with 119 stops. “Me and Amarlo [Herrera], the inside-box guys, we've got to stop the dive. And we've got two outside linebackers that have got to stop the quarterback. And we've just got to make the plays. If we don't make the plays, we get gashed, so we've got to do our job and everything should be all right.”
That's easier said than done, however, as Muschamp can attest.
“You've got to have your offense moving and scoring because as long as [Tech's offense is] on track and on schedule, it's pretty effective,” Grantham said. “It's when there's a separation and they're off track, whether it be down-and-distance or score, then it becomes more difficult. So that's kind of a team thing right there. Fortunately we've been able to do that the last couple years. But it's a challenge to play it.”
OFFENSE: Terrence Magee, RB, LSU
- Rushed for a career-high 149 yards and one TD on 13 carries in win over No. 9 Texas A&M.
- Had a 65-yard run on LSU’s third possession of the game that setup his 1-yard TD run to give the Tigers a 7-0 lead in the contest.
- Averaged 11.5 yards per carry as the Tigers racked up 324 yards on the ground, the most in an SEC game for the Tigers since a 52-3 win over Ole Miss in 2011.
- Garnham paced the Commodore defense with 10 total tackles, including seven solo stops and a tackle for loss, in Vanderbilt's 14-10 victory over Tennessee. The 10-tackle total tied a career high for the three-year starting linebacker.
- Garnham's performance was a key factor in Vanderbilt limiting the Volunteer offense to 237 total yards and the fewest points scored by Tennessee against Vanderbilt since 1968.
- Had two huge plays that impacted the outcome of Mizzou’s 24-10 road win Saturday at No. 24 Ole Miss, as he first blocked a Rebels field goal attempt in the first quarter to snuff out a scoring threat. Mizzou led 7-0 at the time, and Ole Miss drove to the Tiger 1-yard line before being forced to settle for a 23-yard try. Brantley got a big push and blocked the kick to give Mizzou back the ball with its lead intact. Fellow freshman Josh Augusta was initially credited with the block, but after film review, it was Brantley.
- Later, in the third quarter, after Ole Miss scored on its opening possession of the half to cut Mizzou’s lead to 17-10, Mizzou’s offense went three-and-out, but on fourth-and-2 from the Tigers' 20-yard line, Brantley’s number was called on a fake punt. Serving as one of the shield protectors for the punt, Brantley took the direct snap and raced around to the left edge to daylight. He made a nice move to shake one potential tackler near the first-down line, and raced 26-yards to the Tiger 46-yard line to squelch the Ole Miss momentum.
- In his first career start, shut down Texas A&M’s top receiver Mike Evans, Robinson limited the SEC’s leading receiver to his season SEC-low for receptions (four) and second-lowest yardage output in an SEC game this year (51) … Also held him without a TD.
- Evans came in with a league-best 12 receiving TDs … Had 2 tackles and his first career interception in the game … Interception came on A&M’s first possession of second half and resulted in a LSU touchdown nine plays later that stretched the Tiger lead to 31-10.
- Inserted into the Vanderbilt defensive secondary after injuries forced both starting cornerbacks to the sidelines, Head contributed two key interceptions in the Commodores' 14-10 victory over Tennessee.
- Head's second pick ended a Tennessee threat deep in Vanderbilt territory in the fourth quarter. His interception of a Tennessee fake field-goal attempt came at the Vanderbilt 10-yard line with Tennessee leading 10-7.
- Head's performance at cornerback helped the Commodores limit Tennessee to 53 passing yards, 237 total yards. The secondary also picked off three Volunteer passes.
- Jackson was credited with three pancake blocks and was instrumental in the Bulldogs totaling 488 yards of offense, including 209 on the ground.
- Smith was Georgia’s second-leading tackler against Kentucky with seven tackles, including two sacks for 10 yards and three tackles for a loss of 11 yards.
- He also forced a pair of fumbles, one of those leading to a Bulldog touchdown.
- Smith moved to fourth on the team’s tackle list with 58.
- He helped anchor a defense that held Kentucky to 211 total yards on offense, including just 62 on the ground.
ATHENS, Ga. -- Here are five things you need to know leading up to Saturday night's game between Georgia (6-4, 4-3 SEC) and Kentucky (2-8, 0-6).
Last time for the seniors: This is it for Aaron Murray and Georgia's 27 other seniors who will play their final home game at Sanford Stadium. The group enters the Kentucky game with a four-year record of 34-17, having won SEC East titles in 2011 and 2012.
Included in that group are eight players who started last Saturday's game against Auburn: Murray, offensive linemen Chris Burnette, Dallas Lee and Kenarious Gates, tight end Arthur Lynch, receivers Rantavious Wooten and Rhett McGowan and defensive lineman Garrison Smith.
Murray's record chase: Murray is already the only quarterback in SEC history to pass for 3,000-plus yards in three seasons. He needs just 108 yards against Kentucky to make it all four seasons. Having already broken the SEC career records for passing yards, touchdown passes, total offense and completions this season, Murray can still chase down two more records before the season ends. He is 59 pass attempts behind former Kentucky quarterback Jared Lorenzon's career total of 1,514 and needs 12 touchdowns rushing or passing to match Florida great Tim Tebow's mark for touchdown responsibility (145).
League's top tacklers meet: The top three tacklers in the SEC will be on the field tonight: Georgia's Ramik Wilson and Amarlo Herrera and Kentucky's Avery Williamson. Last week against Auburn, Wilson posted Georgia's highest single-game tackles total since 1998 when he recorded 18 stops. That pushed his SEC-leading tackles total to 110 (11 per game). After making 12 tackles against Auburn, Herrera now has 91 tackles this season. Williamson is third with 88 tackles after finishing second in the league with 135 stops last season.
Two Georgia players have led the SEC in tackles: Whit Marshall in 1995 (128) and Rennie Curran in 2009 (130).
Strangely close series: Georgia is regularly a heavy favorite -- and it is again this week, with late-week lines favoring the Bulldogs by 24 points -- but Kentucky has frequently been a tough opponent in the last decade.
Dating back to the Wildcats' upset win in 2006, Georgia is 5-2 against the Wildcats. But included in those five wins are a 42-38 win in 2008, a 19-10 victory where Georgia clinched the 2011 SEC East title after leading just 12-10 entering the final quarter, and last season's 29-24 win in Lexington. Murray torched the Wildcats' secondary for 427 yards and four touchdowns last year, but it took a late onside kick recovery by Connor Norman to disrupt the Wildcats' upset bid.
The news from Thursday that Wildcats coach Mark Stoops had suspended starting cornerback Cody Quinn, third-leading receiver Demarco Robinson and freshman defensive end Jason Hatcher for violating team rules certainly won't help Kentucky's cause.
Turnover troubles: Aside from the score, turnover margin is typically one of the most telling stats in football. Keep an eye on turnovers tonight, as both of these teams have had odd seasons in that regard. Georgia is tied for last in the SEC in turnover margin (minus-eight) although it has taken care of the ball fairly effectively throughout. The Bulldogs' problem is that the defense has intercepted just four passes and recovered five fumbles. They generated 30 turnovers (17 fumble recoveries and 13 interceptions) last season.
Meanwhile, Kentucky is dead even in turnover margin this year, having 11 giveaways and 11 takeaways. The Wildcats have just one interception this season -- by linebacker Josh Forrest -- but they rank second in the SEC with 10 fumble recoveries. Their offense was second nationally for fewest turnovers, but quarterback Jalen Whitlow threw four interceptions last Saturday in a 22-6 loss to Vanderbilt.
ATHENS, Ga. -- If you're at Sanford Stadium prior to Georgia's game against Kentucky on Saturday, don't be alarmed if you witness a physical altercation between Aaron Murray and one of his fellow quarterbacks.
Should he grow too emotional during the pregame ceremony where UGA will honor its seniors before their final home game, Murray has instructed backup Faton Bauta to snap him back to reality.
“You really have to flip a switch because you want to enjoy that time with your family and get to take a picture with Coach [Mark] Richt and all that, and it is tough,” Murray said Tuesday. “But I told Faton yesterday, I said, 'If I'm being a little baby, come slap the crap out of me. Seriously, come knock me and get me going again and get me ticked off.' Because it is tough.”
Murray is one of 28 seniors who will be honored Saturday -- a group that has seen its share of ups and downs at UGA.
“It's been a pretty serious roller coaster in my time here for ups and downs for winning and losing,” senior left guard Dallas Lee said. “I don't really know, man, I'm proud of everything we've gone through the last couple years, getting as close as we did and this year fighting through all the adversity that we've had with injuries.”
Lee is one of a trio of senior starters on Georgia's offensive line along with right guard Chris Burnette and left tackle Kenarious Gates. Together, the three have started exactly 100 games in their college careers.
It's a four-year stretch that saw Georgia post its only losing record under Richt when they were freshmen, bounce back from two losses to open their sophomore season to reach the SEC championship game for the first time since 2005 and then come within a few yards of playing for a BCS championship last year, only to fall just short against eventual BCS champ Alabama in their return trip to Atlanta.
“It's a bond that a lot of people don't have with somebody,” Lee said. “I have the fortune of having it with both of them, Chris and Ken, and it's awesome, man. I consider them two of my brothers.”
Even this season has been a valuable growing experience for the group, said defensive lineman Garrison Smith, the only senior starter on the team. As in life, Smith said in football “you're going to have sunshine and you're going to have storms.”
This season, which opened with the Bulldogs ranked fifth nationally, fell apart as the Bulldogs struggled with too many injuries and defensive miscues. But given the problems that the team faced throughout the season, Smith said he remains proud of the Bulldogs' resilience -- as evidenced by their fourth-quarter comeback Saturday against Auburn, only to suffer a heartbreaking defeat in the final minute.
“It's just a year of a few little thunderstorms. It ain't no monsoons or nothing. Ain't no typhoons. Ain't none of them going on,” Smith said. “Unfortunately we've had the injury bug, man. That's tough, not just for this season, for them players that's hurt. That's what's most important. No player wants to deal with injuries and my heart is out for them guys. ... But at the end of the day, I'm proud of everybody. I'm proud of this team and how they've fought. I don't have no complaints.”
Smith might change his tune a bit if the Bulldogs lose to Kentucky on Saturday, however. That's what happened on senior night in 2009, when receiver Rantavious Wooten caught the first two touchdown passes of his career but saw the Wildcats rally for a 34-27 victory.
Wooten shared that situation with some of his younger teammates this week.
“I was telling the guys for a little extra motivation that it was the same situation my freshman year as it was now,” Wooten said. “Game at night, Kentucky, senior night. We started off good and Kentucky came back and pulled it off. Hell of a game and ended up beating us. This right here is extra motivation. Records don't mean anything. Come out and just prepare like you're playing Alabama.”
Of course, the 2-8 Wildcats aren't close to being in top-ranked Alabama's class. As 24-point underdogs on Saturday, they shouldn't be close to Georgia's, either.
So long as the Bulldogs don't come out of the pregame ceremony with Richt and their families as emotional wrecks, they should be able to take care of business -- and Burnette does not expect emotion to be a problem.
“I feel like it's going to give us energy, honestly. For me it is at least, just understanding it's the last time I get to play between the hedges,” Burnette said. “I've wanted to play on that field and in that stadium since I was like 10 years old, so for it to be the last shot, the last go-round, it's going to be something special.”
The Tigers bring the nation's third-best rushing attack (320 yards per game) into Saturday's game vs. Georgia, but defending the run is what the Bulldogs have done best this season, ranking fourth in the conference and 20th nationally in rushing defense (126 ypg).
Lineup stability has been one of the key factors in Georgia's mostly solid play against the run, as the defensive line hasn't been hit hard by injuries the way some other position groups have this season. More importantly, inside linebackers Ramik Wilson (10.2 tackles per game) and Amarlo Herrera (8.8) -- two of the SEC's top four tacklers -- have managed to stay healthy enough to play nearly every important down this season, providing veteran presences at positions that otherwise would have been manned by freshmen.
The two junior linebackers denied, however, that they're feeling any ill effects from the heavy workload at this late point in the season.
“I feel good, man,” Herrera said. “I feel good, I love football. This is the only time of year I get to play. I waited all year for this.”
Wilson agreed, adding, “We're always in the cold tub and getting treatment, so we feel pretty good.”
Saturday's game might be the biggest test yet for the starting duo of Herrera-Wilson. Auburn's run-heavy spread offense centers around quarterback Nick Marshall and running back Tre Mason's ability to break long runs and keep the chains moving even when plays don't break big.
Defending it properly requires disciplined play from the linemen and linebackers entrusted to fill gaps and clean up with a tackle -- much like how they must play sound “assignment football” each down to contain Georgia Tech's option running game.
“Looking at both of the offenses, really they try to cause chaos and confusion,” defensive end Sterling Bailey said. “As a defense, we've got to just play our technique and play our fundamentals.”
For the most part, Georgia has done that against the run. The Bulldogs knew LSU would try to establish the ground game when they met earlier this season and held the Tigers to just 77 rushing yards on 36 carries.
It's defending the pass that has created the most glaring issues for Georgia's defense -- for instance, LSU quarterback Zach Mettenberger passed for 372 yards even when his running game was faltering -- so Georgia's defenders are perfectly happy to face an Auburn offense that frequently attempts fewer than 10 passes in a game.
“I don't have to run around a lot,” Herrera said. “I get to play football and hit somebody every play. I don't have to cover as much as I do on other weeks because you know they're going to run the ball.”
Surely other Auburn opponents have had similar thoughts prior to facing the Tigers. Yet corralling elusive runners like Marshall and Mason has proven not to be so simple. Aside from a 120-yard rushing effort in their last-minute win against Mississippi State -- they passed for 339 yards in that game -- the Tigers have rushed for at least 200 yards in every game this season.
That includes a 511-yard game on the ground against Western Carolina, 379 yards in an upset of Texas A&M and 444 last Saturday against Tennessee -- with Marshall going for 214 yards and two touchdowns.
To avoid becoming another victim on the Tigers' hit list, the Bulldogs' front seven has to operate quickly -- and provide its most technically sound performance of the season.
“You've just got to know your responsibilities and everybody has to be gap-responsible because if one person's out of position, it can be a big play,” safety Josh Harvey-Clemons said.
OFFENSE: Tre Mason, RB, Auburn
- Rushed for 168 yards and four touchdowns on 32 carries to lead Auburn to a 35-17 win at Arkansas. His four rushing touchdowns and 32 carries were both career-highs.
- Became the first Auburn player since Cam Newton at Kentucky in 2010 to rush for four or more touchdowns in a game.
- It was his fourth 100-yard rushing game in the last six contests.
- Hampton was credited with eight tackles including six solo stops. He had three pass breakups and forced and recovered a fumble.
- The Gamecocks defense forced five turnovers.
- Morgan scored 11 points in the Bulldogs’ 23-20 win over Florida, including 3 for 3 on field goals.
- He highlighted his performance by drilling a 32-yard field goal as time expired in the first half and a 49-yarder earlier in the game.
- Morgan leads the SEC in scoring at 10.2 pts/game and is 13-for-15 on the year (misses from 52 and 39).
- Led the No. 10 Tigers to a 31-3 victory Saturday over Tennessee to improve Mizzou to 8-1, 4-1 in SEC play. Accounted for 277 yards of total offense, as he became the first Mizzou QB since 2011 (James Franklin vs. North Carolina) to throw and rush for 100 yards in a game.
- Ended the night with 163 yards passing and 3 touchdowns (zero interceptions) and ran for a career-high 114 yards on 13 carries (an 8.8 avg. per attempt).
- His touchdown passes came from 9, 26 and 40 yards to three different receivers, and he did not take a sack on the night.
- Britt had another all-star performance as he helped pave and protect the way for a 502-yard night of total offense for Mizzou in its 31-3 win against Tennessee. Britt graded out at 94 percent, and he had five knockdown blocks, three pancake blocks and two cut blocks. Additionally, Britt allowed zero QB pressures and zero QB sacks.
- Mizzou rushed for 339 yards Saturday against Tennessee, marking its biggest rushing total in a conference game since 2003, when the Tigers ran for 376 yards in a 45-7 win against Iowa State on Nov. 29, 2003.
- Smith recorded a career-high nine tackles, including 2.5 sacks for loss of 12 yards, during Georgia’s 23-20 win over Florida.
- After coming into the game with 1.5 sacks this year and only a single sack during the first three years of his career, Smith is third on the team with four sacks and third with a total of 44 tackles this season.
- He led a defense that surrendered only a pair of touchdowns (which had drives of 14 and 50 yards) and a field goal.
Todd Gurley: What can we say about Gurley that hasn't already been said 100 times before? The sophomore running back ignited Georgia's offense in the first quarter, scoring both of the Bulldogs' first two touchdowns en route to a 20-0 lead by the opening seconds of the second period. He ran out of gas later, but finished with 187 yards of total offense -- 100 rushing and 87 receiving -- and Georgia simply would not have won the game without his presence in the backfield.
Garrison Smith: Georgia limited the Gators to 3.5 yards per carry and sacked quarterback Tyler Murphy four times thanks to a strong presence up front. The leader of that group was undoubtedly senior defensive end Smith, who was a regular visitor to the Florida backfield, accounting for 2.5 of those sacks.
Aaron Murray: The senior quarterback played his cleanest game yet against the Gators (the only turnover on his rap sheet was a lateral that tight end Arthur Lynch dropped, which officially counted as a Murray fumble), and that made all the difference in the final outcome. With Gurley struggling to bring the same punch as he wore down, Murray had to carry the offense alone and did a good enough job to win. His 258 yards and one touchdown on Saturday helped Murray finish his career 3-1 against Florida, making him just the third Bulldogs quarterback since the 1940s to post three wins against Florida.
This is a series in which national championships and conference titles are regularly in play for the Bulldogs and Gators when they travel to Jacksonville, Fla.
Just last season, Georgia's 17-9 win represented Florida's only defeat of the regular season, effectively knocking the Gators out of the SEC championship game. Instead, the Bulldogs faced eventual champ Alabama with a spot in the BCS title game at stake.
Fast forward a year and both teams are 4-3, decimated by injuries and unranked.
"There may be a lot of people across the country that aren't too interested in this one as much as they would have been maybe, but I know we are, and I know Florida will be, as well," Georgia coach Mark Richt said on his Monday evening call-in show. "We know what this game means. It means an awful lot regardless of the records."
This is the second time in the last four meetings that neither team is ranked -- the other was 2010 -- but that is highly unusual for this series. Before the 2010 game, at least one of the teams was ranked every year since 1979. And in the last 20 meetings, they were both ranked 10 times.
Even more telling is that both teams have lost their last two games: Georgia to Missouri and Vanderbilt and Florida to LSU and Missouri. According to ESPN Stats and Information, this is the first time since 1926 that Florida and Georgia will meet with both riding multiple-game losing streaks.
"Florida's always big. Every game's big," said senior defensive end Garrison Smith, who was born in 1991. "We've got our back against the wall, with all these guys we've got hurt, so we're just doing the best we can just to get any kind of win."
A win against a rival is always meaningful, but the Eastern Division is still in play for both teams, as well. Missouri (3-1 in SEC play, including wins against Georgia and Florida) could have all but clinched the division if it had held on to beat South Carolina (4-2) last Saturday. But by allowing the Gamecocks to come back from a 17-0 deficit for an overtime victory, Georgia or Florida (both 3-2) could win out and still possibly win the division if Missouri slips.
Richt said the Mizzou loss added some importance to Saturday's game -- although he doesn't seem to believe that it needed much of a spark.
"Missouri losing this past week opens the door for us to stay in this race for the East, and it opens the door for Florida to stay in the race for the East," Richt said. "So I don't think anybody's given up on that. I hope they haven't. I know I have not. That's why I came to Georgia is to win SEC championships, and so you've got to win the East first, and we're still in the race and this game is huge in that regard, as well.
"So we know how important it is, and even if we were mathematically out of the race for that Eastern Division championship, it's still a huge game. We all understand that."
The speed typically increases as a talented, capable player grows more comfortable with what he's doing -- and that's why Shaq Wiggins' interception for a 39-yard touchdown last Saturday against Vanderbilt is an encouraging sign for the freshman cornerback.
“I was sitting there and lining up and trying to figure out what we're going to do and if we were lined up right,” Georgia outside linebacker Jordan Jenkins said. “When I saw it on film, Shaq read it in maybe two seconds. He saw that nobody was blocking him and they made a mistake and just left him unblocked. He saw the quarterback go back and he took off in front of the man and just picked it off. That's definitely something you don't see out of many young guys this early in their career.”
This has been far from a banner season for Georgia's beleagured defensive backfield, but Wiggins is quickly emerging as a bright spot. He gave up a couple of long passes against Missouri -- including one for a fourth-quarter touchdown on a double pass -- but has also made some big plays.
He started for the third straight game against Vanderbilt and recorded both an interception and a pass breakup that was nearly his second pick of the game. He said learning how to make better use of his study time has helped him become a more productive defender, as he said he had seen the trick play the Commodores attempted before on film.
“I was kind of confused when all those linemen came out, so I knew it was either going to be a screen or a pass to the other side, to the other receivers. … I just kind of read it before those big linemen got some hands on me and just made a play on the ball,” Wiggins said.
The truly impressive part is that Georgia hadn't worked on that play at all, Jenkins said. The freshman simply made a quick decision that allowed him to short circuit the play before the Commodores knew what hit them.
“I'd never seen an alignment like that before,” Jenkins said. “That wasn't in our dress rehearsal, anything, and you've got to credit Shaq for that.”
“That is the kind of play Georgia's players are beginning to expect from Wiggins. He has already shot into the backfield on screen passes to record three tackles for a loss and generally displayed the competitiveness and speed that helped make him the highest-rated prospect in Georgia's 2013 signing class according to ESPN's recruiting rankings.
I called it before the game in an interview I did. They asked me who was going to make a play on the ball, who was going to get a strip or an interception or something and I said it was Shaq Wiggins.” Defensive end Garrison Smith on Wiggins' pick-six vs. Vanderbilt.
“I called it before the game in an interview I did,” senior defensive end Garrison Smith said. “They asked me who was going to make a play on the ball, who was going to get a strip or an interception or something and I said it was Shaq Wiggins. Some guys are just gifted with different abilities and he's just one of the guys that I can tell he's got great ball skills. That's one of the things he's good at, so I wasn't surprised at all when he did that.”
Like secondary mates Brendan Langley, Quincy Mauger and Tray Matthews, Wiggins is a freshman who was thrown into the fire because of the Bulldogs' lack of veteran depth at their positions.
They have all experienced their struggles, but a play like his pick-six confirms that the light is clicking on for Wiggins. The big plays he surrendered against Missouri were a painful learning experience, too, but the freshman believes difficult matchups against such high-caliber receivers as Vandy's Jordan Matthews and Mizzou's Dorial Green-Beckham will only help accelerate his development.
Even for a player so small that Jenkins joked with him that Wiggins “looked like a JV high school player playing up in college.”
“I look at myself every day in the mirror and it's always obvious that I'm probably the smallest guy on the field. I just play with a chip on my shoulder,” said Wiggins, who is generously listed at 5-foot-10. “Like a lot of fans and other people say, 'He's too small, can't guard so-and-so receiver,' so I just kind of take that, keep that in the back of my head and make plays. The more plays you make, the more people will start believing in you and feeling comfortable with you on the field. I think I'm kind of proving that.”
The group's struggles have probably been a bit worse than the Bulldogs expected, however, with Georgia ranking dead last in the SEC in scoring defense (33.7 ppg), eighth in total defense (399 ypg) and forcing just three turnovers by opposing offenses to date.
Here is some of what Smith had to say:
What has been your impression of Ray Drew's play lately?
Garrison Smith: He's doing good. I'm proud of him and I'm glad he's doing good. Like I said, it's not how you start, it's how you finish. Everybody can't be a Herschel Walker. Everybody blossoms at different times.
Do you think he just needed to develop some confidence? He came here as such a big prospect -- the only defensive end rated higher than he was in 2011 was Jadeveon Clowney -- and it seemed for a while there like it was reasonable to wonder whether Ray would ever pan out.
Smith: Let's be honest, it kind of messes with you when you're a five-star recruit and you get all this attention and love from the media and public about how good you are, and then all of a sudden you come to college and you're nothing no more. You've got to build yourself all the way back up and you're not playing on that level that you want to play on and then you've got the guy right in front of you playing like he's in the NFL already, Jadeveon Clowney. So that would mess with anybody's self-esteem. But that's why it's like a marathon. It's not about how you start, it's how you finish and he's getting better and better, and that's what it's all about.
Did you deal with that at all? You were a U.S. Army All-American, but it was around the end of your sophomore season before you started to make an impact.
Smith: I knew I was going to have trouble because I came out of a program where I was just taught to go play. My coaches [at Atlanta's Douglass High School, which went 1-9 in Smith's senior season] just told me, 'Go do what you know how to do. Make plays.' So I knew I was going to have trouble, but I was just determined to learn what I had to learn to make me a better player. I just knew that in time, I would get it. I'm getting it. I'm still getting better. I'm getting better every day, so it's that sort of situation, same thing. But I knew how my situation was going to be, so I wasn't surprised or depressed or anything like that.
What is the key factor in you guys becoming more effective at generating turnovers?
Smith: Just patience. Just working hard. That's what it's all about. When we get them sacks, we've got to try to strip the quarterback and just think about it.
Is part of it that the defense is so young?
Smith: It's experience. As you get more comfortable, you're able to do different things. When you're so young and so fresh to the game, you're just trying to not make a mistake and make sure you get the person down.
Is it frustrating to you older players on defense that some of the young guys are having to find their way right now?
Smith: It don't frustrate me because I was that guy at one time, so I can't look down on somebody else. I was once in that situation. I've got a very different outlook because I can see things from both sides of the perspective. That's why I don't point the finger at anyone. I point the finger at myself and the defensive line because we've got to get more pressure on the quarterback to take the pressure off of them. That's how I look at things. I don't ever say, 'It's his fault, it's his fault.' It's not their fault. We've got to do better as a whole.
“I wouldn't say doubt is the word, but I believe that everyone coming into college, unless you just come in and you're a freshman All-American and you're playing every snap from the time you get here until the time you leave, I believe that there is a wall that every player hits that they'll ask the question, 'Well did I make the right decision?' or maybe 'Am I as good as I thought I was?' or maybe 'I should have done something else,' ” Drew said after Tuesday's practice.
After juggling outside linebacker and defensive end responsibilities in his first season and struggling to adapt to his role on the defensive line for much of his sophomore campaign, Drew is finally starting to touch the potential that ESPN talent evaluators saw in naming him as the nation's No. 13 overall prospect and No. 2 defensive end in the 2011 signing class.
He notched two sacks in each of the Bulldogs' last two games, against Tennessee and Missouri, after logging his first quarterback takedown since 2011 in the Bulldogs' win over LSU. The junior now leads the team in both tackles for a loss (six) and sacks (five) and registered a season-high seven tackles against Missouri.
“He's made a big difference,” said linebacker Amarlo Herrera, who was a member of Drew's 2011 signing class. “He's getting a lot of sacks and he's becoming the D-lineman that everybody knew he could be.”
That's a credit to Drew's perseverance, as it wasn't long ago that it was reasonable to wonder whether he might never live up to his billing.
The only defensive end rated higher in that class was South Carolina's Jadeveon Clowney. But while Clowney was an instant hit with the Gamecocks and became an obvious NFL prospect early in his career, Drew's learning curve was much steeper. The comparison to Clowney and other elite prospects who were contributing earlier in their careers didn't help Drew's confidence either.
“Let's be honest, it kind of messes with you when you're a five-star recruit and you get all this attention and love from the media and public about how good you are, and then all of a sudden you come to college and you're nothing no more,” senior defensive end Garrison Smith said.
“You've got to build yourself all the way back up and you're not playing on that level that you want to play on, and then you've got the guy right in front of you playing like he's in the NFL already, Jadeveon Clowney. So that would mess with anybody's self-esteem.
“But that's why it's like a marathon. It's not about how you start, it's how you finish and he's getting better and better, and that's what it's all about.”
Drew is certainly on pace for a strong finish. He has started four of the last five games after failing to start once in his first two seasons. And his 22 tackles this season have nearly matched his career total (31) prior to this season.
Bulldogs coach Mark Richt said Tuesday that Drew is “becoming a little bit of a force” and defensive coordinator Todd Grantham added that “finally the light clicked on and now he's playing the way we felt he could play.”
Not that every Bulldog is necessarily happy about Drew's status as the team's sack leader.
“We can't let Ray lead us in sacks,” laughed outside linebacker Jordan Jenkins. “We gave them sacks away because we're coming off the edge and he steps up right into Ray's hands. But I can't discredit Ray. He definitely came a long way and he's always a fighter, he understands the plays and he understands what to do and he's just balling out there. But we can't let him have the lead by the end of the season.”
With only one sack to his credit so far, Jenkins has a lot of sacking to do if he is to catch up to Drew.
That might come as a surprise to most who follow Georgia's program -- and maybe to Drew himself -- but Drew said before the season that he planned to stop putting so much pressure on himself. That approach seems to be paying off.
“I would say that [my first two seasons were] helpful,” Drew said. “They've been informative -- helped me learn more about myself as a player and they've helped me growing not only as a football player, but as a person, as well, because up to this time in the football world, I really hadn't had to face any adversity. So now being in the position that I am, I think it made me a stronger person.”