ATHENS, Ga. – If Georgia's situation doesn't seem familiar, it certainly should. After losing its first SEC game of the season on Saturday, Georgia no longer controls its fate in its pursuit of a league title.
No Bulldogs team has gone unbeaten in SEC play – or even in divisional play – since the conference split into divisions in 1992, and yet Georgia has claimed five SEC East titles in Mark Richt's 12-plus seasons as coach, including each of the last two years.
As they prepare for their often-treacherous visit to Nashville to face Vanderbilt (3-3, 0-3 SEC), the injury-riddled Bulldogs understand that their BCS championship hopes are all but dead, but they remain among the top contenders in the East -- particularly since they've beaten South Carolina and both Florida and Missouri have injury concerns of their own.
“The past two seasons, we've dug ourselves out of a hole and hopefully we'll try to do it again,” senior tight end Arthur Lynch said. “It's not ideal or what you hope for, but I think for us as a team, we know we can control what's in front of us in terms of the games we play. We have Vanderbilt next week in Nashville. That's going to be a tough game.”
Georgia was in an extremely similar position two years ago when it visited Vanderbilt.
The Bulldogs suffered a pair of early losses and arrived in Nashville needing a win that would make the ensuing open date tolerable with a huge game against Florida on the horizon. Georgia's 33-28 win is best remembered for the postgame shouting match between Bulldogs defensive coordinator Todd Grantham and Commodores head coach James Franklin, but it was Georgia punter Drew Butler who made the play of the game when he tackled Kenny Ladler deep in Georgia territory in the game's closing seconds after Udom Umoh blocked a Butler punt.
Georgia claimed a 24-20 win over Florida after the open date and rolled through the rest of the conference schedule, earning the first of two consecutive berths in the SEC championship game and setting up the blueprint for what the Bulldogs now must accomplish in order to return to Atlanta.
“The best thing we can do right now obviously is to get ready to play Vanderbilt and try to get a victory there,” Georgia coach Mark Richt said. “It's been tough to be able to do that, especially last time we were there. It was quite a game if you remember, and we were very fortunate to get out of there with a win.
“So we've got to just try to take care of that business and then the open date we can probably see how the dust is settling then prior to the Florida game. But the biggest thing we can do to help ourselves is to get ready this week.”
No. 14 Missouri (6-0, 2-0) is in the driver's seat in the East after handing No. 15 Georgia (4-2, 3-1) a 41-26 loss on Saturday, but the win was costly for the Tigers. Quarterback James Franklin took a hard hit from Bulldogs outside linebacker Jordan Jenkins and suffered a separated shoulder that could force him to miss the rest of the season.
Freshman quarterback Maty Mauk performed well after replacing Franklin against Georgia, but he now must face No. 22 Florida (4-2, 3-1) and No. 11 South Carolina (5-1, 3-1) over the next two weeks. Florida dropped its first league game on Saturday at LSU, meaning the Gators' next two games -- at Mizzou and against Georgia in Jacksonville -- will have a major say in their fate. And South Carolina still must beat Mizzou and Florida and hope Georgia loses again somewhere along the line.
“It's the SEC. You never know. Missouri could lose, too,” Georgia running back Brendan Douglas said. “You never know what could happen. But Missouri's a great team. I'm not going to say anything about them, but you never know what could happen.”
Richt agreed with that sentiment, noting on his Sunday teleconference that, “It might be who can handle the adversity the best – who can find a way to win, who can fight and scratch and figure out a way. That's probably what it's going to come down to.”
Georgia learned that much over the last few weeks when injuries to tailbacks Todd Gurley and Keith Marshall, receivers Malcolm Mitchell, Justin Scott-Wesley, Jonathon Rumph and Michael Bennett and safety Tray Matthews caused the Bulldogs to play most of the last two games without some of their top playmakers.
Although Mitchell, Marshall and Scott-Wesley are out for the year and Bennett is out until at least the Florida game, Richt said Rumph should return to practice on Monday. Gurley and Matthews, he said, also might return for the Vandy game.
Regardless of whether they play, the main goal for Georgia this week is to get out of Nashville with a win that lets the Bulldogs reach their off week, heal from some of the injuries that have been so costly lately, and prepare for the showdown in Jacksonville. The back end of the Bulldogs' conference schedule -- after facing four top-15 teams in the first six games -- is more manageable, but they have to get past Vanderbilt for those games to matter the way they have in the last two seasons.
“We really need to just focus on the task at hand, which right now is Vanderbilt, and take it one game at a time,” Lynch said. “To be 4-2 after the kind of gauntlet we've been through, with four or five ranked teams in six games, is not easy.
“I think that even if from a national standpoint, people have kind of lost hope for us, which is fine in my eyes, no team will have a better resume in terms of strength of schedule than we have through this season, so I think there's some merit in that.”