Georgia Bulldogs: Garrison Smith

ATHENS, Ga. -- Like former Georgia teammate Zach Mettenberger a week before him, Aaron Murray wanted to prove that he’s close to full health at the Bulldogs’ pro day on Wednesday -- his first public passing session since tearing his left ACL last November.

Although he didn’t attempt more than 100 throws like Mettenberger did at LSU’s pro day last week, Murray’s battery of agility drills and a wide range of drops, rollouts and throws showed that he should be physically ready to compete when his future team opens rookie camp.

[+] EnlargeAaron Murray
AP Photo/John BazemoreAt Wednesday's pro day, Aaron Murray didn't show ill affects from his November ACL injury.
“I think I’ve shown everyone that they don’t have to worry about my injury, that it’s not going to stop me from being able to compete this year,” Murray said. “Now it’s just a matter of what teams like me, what teams don’t and is one going to draft me.”

Murray completed 48 of 54 throws with three drops in Wednesday’s passing session, which was directed by quarterback guru and former NFL assistant Terry Shea. Among Shea’s previous pre-draft clients are No. 1 overall picks Matthew Stafford and Sam Bradford and No. 2 pick Robert Griffin III.

“I thought it went very well,” Shea said. “In four weeks that we’ve been together, I’ve never seen him favor that knee or anything. So I’m really excited that he’s healthy.”

In fact, Murray is apparently ahead of schedule in his recovery. Trevor Moawad, vice president at the EXOS/Athletes’ Performance facilities where Murray conducted his offseason workouts, said the training staff followed a similar rehab schedule as they did with Bradford, who was also coming off an injury when preparing for the 2010 draft.

“I think he’s ahead of probably where he should be at this time and I think come May 8 after the draft, I think he’s going to be able to show up at a team and be right where he needs to be,” Moawad said.

Murray was the featured attraction at Wednesday’s sparsely attended pro day, which represented a significant change from last year, when the Bulldogs had eight players drafted -- four in the first 85 picks -- and three more who made NFL rosters as undrafted free agents.

Murray (No. 129) is the only Bulldog listed among ESPN’s top 150 draft prospects, and only he and tight end Arthur Lynch received invitations to the NFL combine. Nonetheless, 15 former Bulldogs worked out Wednesday before the 23 NFL teams that had representatives on hand -- many of whom still harbor hopes of becoming late-round selections or undrafted free agents.

That group included offensive guards Chris Burnette and Dallas Lee, both of whom snapped to the quarterbacks during passing drills, showing off what they hope teams will view as positional versatility.

“I feel like you get to the next level, they want to have a guy who’s a swingman, who can play multiple positions,” said Burnette, rated by ESPN as the draft’s No. 19 guard prospect. “I don’t want to limit myself to guard. I’ve had a little bit of experience playing center, so I tried to focus on my snaps and stuff like that during this time off. I think it was good for me to be able to do that.”

Another player hoping to catch an NFL club’s eye was defensive lineman Garrison Smith, who ranked fourth on the team with 63 tackles and added six sacks and 10 tackles for a loss. Smith is hardly a flashy player, but said scouts who pay close attention to his performances on film will see an NFL-caliber player.

“I can do it all. I can look good in a T-shirt, I can look good in the birthday suit, it don’t matter. But I’m a football player,” joked Smith, rated by ESPN as the No. 34 defensive tackle prospect. “When them pads get on, it gets real serious. In them trenches, ask about me down there. I’ve got a lot of respect down there and I made a lot of plays.

“Look at game film, look at my stats. I had good games against good teams this year. I didn’t have no amazing games against teams that they say were less of opponents. I had good games against Florida, LSU, Tennessee. They’re supposed to have one of the best offensive lines in the country. Watch the film. That’s all I want people to see: I’m a good player.”

Bulldogs coach Mark Richt agreed with his former player’s assessment, noting that he would not be surprised to see Smith find a way to stick on an NFL roster like the three undrafted Bulldogs -- receiver Marlon Brown and defensive linemen Kwame Geathers and Abry Jones -- did a year ago.

“People will see his film. They’ll see his productivity,” Richt said. “From what I’m hearing, if he doesn’t get drafted, he’s going to get into a camp and get a chance to make it. We had Geathers last year didn’t get drafted and made a team. We had Abry Jones, I don’t think he was drafted [and] he made a team. I’m hoping he gets drafted, but if he doesn’t, he’ll get in camp and I think he’ll find a way to stick.”
We're closing in on the start of spring practice at Georgia, so this week we will take a look at five position battles worth watching this spring.

Yesterday we examined the competition at safety. Today let's move to the defensive line, which lost a starter in Garrison Smith, but should otherwise have plentiful depth and experience:

[+] EnlargeRay Drew
Dale Zanine/USA TODAY SportsRay Drew will be among those tasked with getting a better pass rush for Georgia in 2014.
Returning starters: A number of defensive linemen earned starts for the first times in their careers last fall. Defensive end Sterling Bailey (34 tackles, one sack, one tackle for a loss) started the first eight games and came off the bench for the remaining five. Position mate Ray Drew (43 tackles, six sacks, eight TFLs) started seven times, but never started more than two games in a row at any point. And noseguard Chris Mayes (31 tackles, one sack, one TFL) started to come into his own during his streak of seven straight starts to conclude the season.

Departures: Smith (63 tackles, six sacks, 10 TFLs) started all 13 games last season and was one of the emotional leaders on the defense, earning defensive team captain honors after the season.

Returning reserves: John Taylor (nine tackles, one sack, 1.5 TFLs) and Toby Johnson (seven tackles, 1.5 TFLs) are probably the first names to mention here. Both players appeared in 10 games off the bench in 2013 and should compete for extended playing time this fall. Taylor was a redshirt freshman and still looked a bit green last season, while Johnson was only nine months removed from a season-ending ACL tear when the Bulldogs opened preseason camp a year ago. Josh Dawson (eight tackles, one TFL) appeared in 12 games and started once at end and Mike Thornton (five tackles, one sack, one TFL) appeared in 11 games. Smith mentioned Thornton as a player who might fill a larger role in the Bulldogs' retooled 3-4 scheme under new defensive coordinator Jeremy Pruitt.

Newcomers: Redshirt freshman John Atkins is among the more intriguing players who will enter the mix this spring. He's big and quick enough to play any position along the line, and it wouldn't be a big surprise to see him figure into the line rotation early next season. Noseguard DeAndre Johnson is also coming off a redshirt, but he faces steep competition in the middle this spring. The Bulldogs also signed defensive tackle Lamont Gaillard -- ESPN's No. 55 overall prospect and No. 4 DT -- and ESPN 300 defensive end Keyon Brown, but neither player is on campus yet.

What to watch: The line came into 2013 with limited experience, but ranked among the pleasant surprises for a defense that disappointed overall. The Bulldogs defended the run fairly well -- Georgia's average of 3.7 yards allowed per carry ranked second in the SEC -- thanks in large part to typically stout play by the line. With six sacks apiece, Drew and Smith both ranked among the SEC's top pass-rushers, but the group generally struggled to generate a consistent pass rush or convert sack opportunities. Identifying strong rush men will likely rank among new line coach Tracy Rocker's goals for the spring, as will simply teaching his new players how he wants things done. This will be the third line coach in as many seasons for the Bulldogs, so the group has certainly become accustomed to change. It will be a big spring for all of the linemen since Rocker brings a fresh set of eyes to the table, without having formed an opinion based on their performances in previous seasons. It might provide a chance for someone like Johnson -- we recently discussed his situation here -- Taylor or Atkins to grab a bigger role than he previously enjoyed.

Players to watch: Toby Johnson

February, 26, 2014
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With spring practice still a few weeks away, this week we'll discuss five players to watch once the Bulldogs open workouts on March 18.

We talked about wide receiver Jonathon Rumph and offensive guard Brandon Kublanow in the first two installments. We move on Wednesday to a defensive lineman who could play a bigger role in 2014 now that he has had a year to heal from an injury and get his bearings at Georgia.

Toby Johnson (defensive lineman, Sr.)

2013 review: A late addition to Georgia's 2013 signing class, Johnson was the No. 4 overall prospect on the ESPN Junior College 100 and hoped to play a much larger role along the defensive line. He was coming off an ACL injury from the previous November, but he did not want to redshirt. So he played in 10 games as a reserve, finishing the season with seven tackles and 1.5 tackles for a loss.

Why spring is important: Playing time would have been available for Johnson even without Garrison Smith -- a 2013 senior who started all 13 games last season -- leaving the lineup. Johnson was listed as Smith's backup at defensive end in the bowl loss, and like Smith, he is capable of playing either inside or outside depending on the situation. The goal this spring will be for Johnson to prove to new defensive line coach Tracy Rocker that he deserves to be one of the leading figures along the line and not the role player he was a season ago.

Best case/worst case: Johnson was only about 10 months removed from ACL surgery when last season started, and while he said he felt healthy, he never made a dent in the starting lineup. Smith, Chris Mayes and the Ray Drew-Sterling Bailey combo handled the top spots along the line for much of the season, but a big spring could push Johnson toward the front of the line this fall. There are other contenders for playing time -- including John Taylor, John Atkins, Josh Dawson and Michael Thornton -- so this will be a pivotal spring for all of them. If Johnson fails to make a move this spring, he runs the risk of remaining as a utility man as a senior, which would be a big disappointment for a player who carried such acclaim when he signed with the Bulldogs.
ATHENS, Ga. -- Amarlo Herrera isn't ready to assess Georgia's 2014 defense yet. Not when the Bulldogs still have to play a bowl game before this season is complete.

“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.

[+] EnlargeTray Matthews
AP Photo/John BazemoreTray Matthews is one of 10 starters that should return on Georgia's defense next fall.
“We've got to stop coming off slow in the first half,” inside linebacker Ramik Wilson said. “We've got to finish, and that's what we've been doing in the second half.”

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.

Reviewing a wild season of UGA football

December, 2, 2013
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ATHENS, Ga. -- Georgia's season is obviously not over, as we'll learn the 8-4 Bulldogs' postseason fate sometime within the next week. But Saturday's double-overtime win against Georgia Tech put an exclamation point on easily the craziest regular season in Mark Richt's 13 seasons as Georgia's coach.

Let's look back over the season and recap some of the highs and lows:

[+] EnlargeAaron Murray
Daniel Shirey/USA TODAY SportsAaron Murray had a standout season until he joined the long list of Georgia injuries.
What might have been: There is not a single game this season where the Bulldogs did not play without at least one key player -- and by the Tech game, the injured list featured an all-star team of talent. Considering how receivers Malcolm Mitchell and Justin-Scott Wesley and tailback Keith Marshall suffered season-ending knee injuries before the midway point, quarterback Aaron Murray will miss the final two games with an ACL injury and that tailback Todd Gurley, receivers Chris Conley and Michael Bennett and tight end Jay Rome all dealt with multiple-game setbacks, it's a wonder that Georgia didn't go into a steeper tailspin than it did.

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.

Richt expects staff to remain intact

December, 1, 2013
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ATHENS, Ga. -- Mark Richt expects everyone on his coaching staff to return for 2014, as long as they want to remain at Georgia.

“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.”

Five things: Georgia-Georgia Tech

November, 30, 2013
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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.
ATHENS, Ga. -- Garrison Smith is prepared for the inevitable and knows what he has to do against Georgia Tech on Saturday -- something Florida's defenders struggled to accomplish in last Saturday's upset loss against a similar Georgia Southern offense.

[+] EnlargeGarrison Smith
Mark LoMoglio/Icon SMIGarrison Smith and Georgia's defensive line will have to be disciplined taking on Georgia Tech's option offense.
“You've just got to use your hands and keep [the offensive linemen] off your legs. That's what you've got to do,” the Georgia defensive lineman said. “You're going to get cut [blocked]. That's going to happen. But you've just got to keep playing.”

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.

[+] EnlargeVad Lee
Mark Dolejs/USA TODAY SportsVad Lee and Georgia Tech's offense are averaging more than 300 yards rushing per game this season.
“I think the more you see anything, the better you feel about it from that standpoint,” Grantham said. “But they're going to mix up what they do. Every year they try to change up and tweak it.

“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.”

SEC players of the week

November, 25, 2013
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Here are the SEC players of the week, as announced by the league Monday:

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.
DEFENSE: Chase Garnham, LB, Vanderbilt
  • 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.
SPECIAL TEAMS: Harold Brantley, DT, Missouri
  • 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.
Co-FRESHMAN: Rashard Robinson, DB, LSU
  • 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.
CO-FRESHMAN: Paris Head, DB, Vanderbilt
  • 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.
OFFENSIVE LINE: Gabe Jackson, OL, Mississippi State
  • Jackson was credited with three pancake blocks and was instrumental in the Bulldogs totaling 488 yards of offense, including 209 on the ground.
DEFENSIVE LINE: Garrison Smith, DE, Georgia
  • 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.

Five things: Georgia-Kentucky

November, 23, 2013
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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.

One final go-round for UGA seniors

November, 20, 2013
11/20/13
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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.”

[+] EnlargeGeorgia's Aaron Murray
Scott Cunningham/Getty ImagesAaron Murray hopes that his final home game will end in celebration, like the majority of his games at Sanford Stadium have.

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.”

Discipline required to defend Auburn

November, 13, 2013
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ATHENS, Ga. -- Few teams in college football are more committed to moving the ball on the ground than Auburn, which suits the members of Georgia's defensive front seven just fine.

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).

[+] EnlargeAmarlo Herrera
AP Photo/Paul AbellGeorgia linebacker Amarlo Herrera has 79 tackles and an interception on the season.
“We are excited that we have the opportunity to, I guess you could say, flex our muscles, show who we really are,” Georgia defensive end Ray Drew said. “This is going to be one of those tell-tale games. But if we go out and do what we're supposed to, I know that the talent level that we have with myself, Sterling Bailey, Garrison Smith and those guys, the guys up front, I believe we're going to be fine. I'm confident as all get out. I don't see anything that's going to stop us other than ourselves.”

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.

SEC players of the week

November, 4, 2013
11/04/13
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Here are the SEC players of the week as released by the league on Monday:

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.
DEFENSE: Victor Hampton, DB, South Carolina
  • 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.
SPECIAL TEAMS: Marshall Morgan, PK, Georgia
  • 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).
FRESHMAN: Maty Mauk, QB, Missouri
  • 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.
OFFENSIVE LINEMAN: Justin Britt, LT, Missouri
  • 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.
DEFENSIVE LINEMAN: Garrison Smith, NG, Georgia
  • 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.

Week 10 helmet stickers

November, 3, 2013
11/03/13
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JACKSONVILLE, Fla. -- It's time to hand out helmet stickers for standout individual performances in Georgia's 23-20 win over Florida on Saturday.

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.
ATHENS, Ga. -- Despite the insistence from both sides that this season's Georgia-Florida game still has meaning -- talk that has merit, considering the winner will remain an active competitor in the SEC East race -- Saturday's game does occupy an unglamorous spot in the rivalry's history.

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.

[+] EnlargeAaron Murray
AP Photo/Stephen MortonAaron Murray and the Georgia seniors lost to Florida in OT as freshmen but have won two in a row since.
Nonetheless, Saturday's game represents a major opportunity for Georgia's senior class. At worst, they will finish their careers with a .500 record against the Gators, since Georgia carries a two-game series winning streak into Saturday. They can become Georgia's first senior class in their lifetime to post a winning record against Florida, as the last group that could make that claim was Georgia's 1990 senior class.

"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."

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