I never bought into the preseason line of thought that said Mark Richt had to win a certain number of games to keep his job. For one thing (and to his credit), McGarity refused to judge Richt on that basis.
What I did think Richt would have to do in order for the program to show enough improvement was to re-instill a sense of effort and urgency, things which had been lacking noticeably over the past few seasons. Given the level of Georgia’s talent and the schedule advantage the Dawgs have over the rest of their SEC East rivals, I thought that if Richt could recover some of the mojo from earlier in his head coaching career, his team would be in the thick of things contending for the top of the division.
And halfway through the regular season, that’s exactly where we find Georgia. The misgivings from the 0-2 start (which really arose from how unprepared the team looked against Boise State) have given way to cautious optimism based on several factors which were on prominent display Saturday night in Knoxville.
- Pass defense. Continuing a trend in its conference games, Georgia’s defense forced Tennessee, the SEC’s top passing offense coming in, to its lowest passer rating of the season. And that was without Cornelius Washington. The secondary’s confidence grows palpably, and with good reason. It’s only given up one passing touchdown during the winning streak, on that fluky play at Ole Miss.
- Linebacking play. They certainly benefited from the improvement on the defensive line, but it’s not hard to be impressed with the way that Georgia has generated depth at this position. Herrera has been fabulous for a true freshman and Gilliard continued his steady play in Knoxville. Vasser looked good on run defense, too. And then there’s Jarvis Jones, who’s been the absolute rock that this defense is based on.
- Defensive line. Did anyone notice that Jenkins got the start Saturday night? The reason you may not have is that his play and Geathers’ have become interchangeable. Georgia’s success stopping the run starts with those two.
- Offensive line. Yeah, the depth situation remains scary. But the emergence of Dallas Lee has made it a little less so. Two red zone rushing touchdowns were a good sign.
- Receivers. No worries with the tight ends. It was interesting to see how much the early offensive game plan keyed on King, but some of that was dictated by the Vols’ defensive strategy. Malcolm Mitchell, quite simply, is a revelation. With the development of a legitimate deep threat, this bunch can contribute.
- Running backs. I’m truly amazed by the criticism of Crowell that he’s somehow not tough enough. He’s fourth in the conference in rushing, despite that offensive line. And he had a rough night, relatively speaking. But despite facing a defense that was keyed to stop him (if you doubt that, watch Georgia’s very first offensive play of the game) and getting banged up in the process, he still managed to score those two big third-quarter TDs, displaying both power and speed. Carlton Thomas is one of the most improved players on the team and has become a legitimate contributor on offense. The fullbacks are doing exactly what they need to do, block their asses off.
- Aaron Murray. Yes, he needs to refine his touch on the deep pass. (Damn, that throw to Mitchell was on the money, though.) But look at the rest of what he brought to the table against UT. He only threw one bad ball all night, he displayed good touch on the short and intermediate throws and he had several key runs. He seems to be learning that he doesn’t have to carry the team all by his lonesome. That’ll make him a better quarterback.
- Special teams. Butler had another terrific game. Walsh seems to be regrouping on his field goal kicking, but didn’t have his usual distance on kickoffs (surely those aren’t related). Kickoff coverage wasn’t the greatest, but overall, Georgia didn’t cost itself in this department. That’s an improvement over the past few weeks.
- Coaching. The final margin may not reflect it, but I thought that was the best coached game Georgia’s turned in this season. Richt set the tone early with those fourth down calls on the opening drive. Grantham’s halftime adjustments were VanGorder-like (Tennessee had eleven total yards in the decisive third quarter). And Bobo did a good job both in taking what the Vol defense was giving him – had they hit a couple more of those downfield shots, the game would have turned into a rout – and in managing his personnel, particularly with Crowell being dinged up.
And so they march on to Nashville. The Dawgs aren’t out of the woods yet by any means, but at least they’ve got a shot. Assuming they get by Vanderbilt, the bye week comes at a good time to get several key players some much-needed time to heal. This could be a formidable bunch that steps on the field to face Florida. Now if Richt can only get them to realize that…