Georgia Bulldogs: Brian VanGorder
Kentucky (2-8, 0-6 SEC) did indeed suffer a difficult defeat, falling 22-6 at Vanderbilt to drop its 14th consecutive conference game. The Wildcats outgained the Commodores 246-172 through three quarters, but Vandy dominated the fourth, enjoying a 141-16 yardage advantage and scoring 13 unanswered points to earn the victory.
But that was just a run-of-the-mill loss compared to the gut-wrenching circumstances by which Georgia lost. The Bulldogs were on the verge of getting blown out early, only to slowly creep back into the game. Then Aaron Murray and the Georgia offense caught fire late, scoring three straight touchdowns and rolling up 216 yards of offense in the fourth quarter alone, only to have Ricardo Louis grab a deflected pass and score the game-winning touchdown on a fourth-down, desperation heave by Nick Marshall.
The loss eliminated Georgia (6-4 overall, 4-3 SEC) from contention in the SEC East and forced the Bulldogs to focus on lesser goals instead of representing the division for a third straight season in the SEC championship game.
“The season isn't over with. We will approach it just like any other game,” said Rantavious Wooten, one of seven seniors who started against Auburn, along with fellow receiver Rhett McGowan, Murray, offensive linemen Chris Burnette, Kenarious Gates and Dallas Lee, and tight end Arthur Lynch. “It's going to be my last game in Sanford Stadium, so we will have to talk to the young guys and tell them to keep the faith and keep fighting.”
There is also the matter of reaching the best bowl possible. Although Georgia's options aren't particularly promising -- the majority of Sunday's bowl projections favor the Bulldogs to play in either the Gator or Music City bowls -- that possibility was off the table for Kentucky weeks ago.
The Wildcats, however, have given Georgia fits in recent years, so the Bulldogs likely can't afford a flat effort. Georgia is 5-2 against Kentucky dating back to a 24-20 loss in Lexington in 2006 -- one of four times in that seven-game stretch where the outcome has been decided by seven points or less.
Considering how Georgia has struggled to finish off opponents -- Saturday was only the most recent heart-stopper for a Bulldogs team that is setting an historically bad pace on defense -- that has to be a cause for concern.
In fact, Georgia's defensive shortcomings were the subject of multiple questions Richt faced on his Sunday teleconference, as Todd Grantham's defense is on pace to set new program marks for most points allowed and most yards allowed.
The 2009 team surrendered 337 points, which is a program high for a season of 12-plus games. This year's team, which is surrendering 30.2 points per game, has already allowed 302 points with three games to play (Kentucky, Georgia Tech and a bowl game). Likewise, the 2013 Bulldogs are on pace to surrender 5,029.7 yards -- potentially just the second time in school history that Georgia allowed 5,000-plus yards after last season's bunch surrendered 5,009 in 14 games.
“Here's what I say: I say we're a team here at Georgia and we're going to keep coaching and keep trying to make improvements and corrections on everything we do, in all phases of the game,” Richt said when asked to rate his level of satisfaction with the defensive coaching staff's performance.
Such a response is common under these circumstances for Richt, who is rarely willing to discuss his concerns publicly. Grantham's defense is preparing to face teams that rank 104th (Kentucky, 349.2 yards per game) and 53rd (Georgia Tech, 432.2) nationally in total offense, so the Bulldogs should have an opportunity to improve their underwhelming defensive stats before the season ends.
It would be much easier to focus on such necessary improvements had safeties Tray Matthews or Josh Harvey-Clemons managed to knock down Auburn's last-gasp touchdown pass to preserve Georgia's comeback win. The Bulldogs would still be alive in the East race and would have a third win against a top-10 opponent this season instead of grasping at less-appealing methods to motivate themselves for their home finale against Kentucky.
That's Richt and company's unique challenge this week after a defeat that could naturally cause lingering dejection -- and the coach said he plans to focus on the positive as best he can.
“We've got to do a good job of, again, pointing out all the positive things that happened and building on those types of things, because there were a lot of tremendous things that happened in the game,” Richt said. “And then make sure we learn from whatever mistakes we had, correct them, have a plan for that, and then we have to get the new game plan in.”
The Bulldogs (9-1, 7-1 SEC) thoroughly dominated every aspect of Saturday’s game, handing the Tigers (2-8, 0-7) a defeat that might have sealed the fate of embattled head coach Gene Chizik and his staff.
Let’s recap some of the highs and lows of Saturday’s victory:
Richt used his time Wednesday on the SEC’s weekly teleconference to discuss facing Auburn assistants Brian VanGorder and Willie Martinez, both of whom served on Richt’s original Georgia staff in 2001 and at some point held the defensive coordinator title at UGA.
1. Emotional connection
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Many of them -- particularly well-traveled coaches -- cross paths with former co-workers several times per season, but they understand their loyalties must be to their jobs and not to friends with other programs or even their alma maters.
Despite that fact of life within the coaching ranks, Georgia coach Mark Richt and several of the coaches involved in Saturday’s meeting between the fifth-ranked Bulldogs (8-1, 6-1 SEC) and rival Auburn (2-7, 0-6) will face highly unusual circumstances in that regard.
All three men who have served as defensive coordinator for Richt at Georgia will be coaching Saturday at Jordan-Hare Stadium -- Todd Grantham, who has held the position at Georgia since 2010, and Auburn assistants Brian VanGorder (2001-04) and Willie Martinez (2005-09).
“I love both of them, I love their families, but I think we all know that we’ve got to prepare our teams to play ball and that’s what will be going on from kickoff till the end,” Richt said when asked about VanGorder and Martinez, who were both members of his original staff at UGA.
VanGorder helped Richt put Georgia’s program on the map with a fearsome brand of defense that regularly had the Bulldogs among the national leaders in most defensive statistical categories. He won the 2003 Frank Broyles Award, which goes to the nation’s top assistant coach, before holding a variety of positions in the interim -- most recently defensive coordinator with the Atlanta Falcons before accepting the same job at Auburn in the offseason.
Meanwhile, Martinez was at Georgia recently enough to have coached with most members of Richt’s staff. Several veteran Bulldogs played under Martinez, as well, which is a more irregular occurrence for players and their former coaches.
“He taught me a lot of things when he was here, so I’m kind of happy to see him because I haven’t seen him in a long time,” said senior safety Bacarri Rambo, who was a freshman in 2009 when Martinez was in his final season as the Bulldogs’ defensive coordinator and defensive backs coach.
That doesn’t mean the reunion will be entirely comfortable, however.
Saturday’s game on the Plains will be the 21st time that the Georgia-Auburn game decided the conference fate of at least one of the teams, whether it was an overall SEC or divisional title. Georgia is 11-8-1 in such situations in series history.
This time, No. 5 Georgia (8-1, 6-1 SEC) has its SEC East and BCS bowl hopes on the line, while Auburn (2-7, 0-6) is attempting to create a bright spot in an otherwise disastrous season.
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We're putting spring behind us and looking toward the fall with our post-spring power rankings:
1. LSU: The Tigers had one of the best springs around. Things were quiet off the field, and the offense rallied behind quarterback Zach Mettenberger. Coach Les Miles was very impressed with Mettenberger's play and maturity, and expects LSU's offense to be more balanced with him under center. LSU can still use four or five running backs as well. Defensively, the Tigers are stacked once again, especially up front with two potential first-rounders in ends Sam Montgomery and Barkevious Mingo. Questions surround the inexperienced linebackers, but Kevin Minter had a tremendous spring in the middle. On paper, LSU is equipped with the talent to make another title run, and gets Alabama at home this year.
1. Alabama: The defense will get hit the hardest by graduation and the NFL draft, but Alabama's offense should be better. While it's almost a forgone conclusion that junior running back Trent Richardson will declare for the NFL draft, Alabama returns a veteran offensive line, has a good set of up-and-coming receivers and has some pretty talented running backs to work with, including pounder Eddie Lacy. Oh, and that quarterback ain't too bad, either.
2. LSU: The Tigers might have come up short in the big one, but it's not like LSU is going anywhere. That defense that ranked second nationally was made up by a slew of youngsters. LSU returns double-digit starters next year, including most of its front seven. A major bright spot for this team is that former Georgia quarterback Zach Mettenberger will now get his chance, and has skill that Jordan Jefferson and Jarrett Lee lacked.
Top SEC running backs returning in 2015
TBD San JosÚ St Auburn TBD Ole Miss Florida TBD Alabama Georgia TBD Eastern Kentucky Kentucky TBD Eastern Michigan LSU TBD Vanderbilt Middle Tennessee TBD South Carolina Missouri TBD Arkansas Tennessee TBD Mississippi State Texas A&M