After a third straight game the Dawgs never appeared to be in any serious danger of losing, the four-game losing streak that threatened to deep-six the 2010 season before it was even half-over has become a distant memory. As we head into a stretch run that could either earn Mark Richt a fourth SEC East title or send him crashing to his first losing season, here's what we know about the Dawgs.
1. The offense has finally come together. Don't let the so-so stats from the box score fool you -- the Georgia offense had another terrific game. The only reason the Dawgs' yardage numbers weren't more exciting was because Kentucky's turnovers kept giving them short fields (their average starting field position on six first-half drives was the Kentucky 40). Aaron Murray had another efficient day (9-of-12 passing for 113 yards) and his third straight pick-free performance. The offensive line didn't give up a single sack, and it also cleared the way for a 157-yard, five-TD game from Washaun Ealey -- who, it should be pointed out, was fumble-free in his second straight game as the starting running back. And no, it's not like Georgia has gone up against Steel Curtain defenses the past three games, but if dumping 40-plus points on three straight SEC opponents was an easy thing to do, Georgia would be doing it all the time -- and this is the first time it's ever happened. Getting Caleb King back from suspension this week will add a further dimension to an offense that's playing with more confidence than it has at perhaps any point since Matt Stafford and Knowshon Moreno packed up for the NFL.
2. The defense's new aggressiveness is starting to pay off in some respects . . . Against a Kentucky offensive line that had allowed only six sacks in its first seven games, the Dawgs took down Mike Hartline three times (two and a half of them going to Justin Houston, who remains a comfortable #1 in the SEC in that category) and got in his face all evening long. That pressure caused the fumble that set up Georgia's first score, as well as the end-zone pick that snuffed out Kentucky's first drive of the second half. Even the secondary played with more aggressiveness -- when was the last time you saw a Georgia DB stick with a play long enough to force a fumble downfield, as Bacarri Rambo did after La'Rod King's 29-yard reception in the first quarter? Part of the reason the Dawgs had a -16 turnover margin in '09 was because they only forced 12 turnovers all season long; just a little more than halfway through 2010, they've already forced 15. This is the kind of heads-up play that can turn close losses into close wins, or close wins into blowouts.
3. . . . That said, the pass defense still needs a lot of work, particularly on third down. It's all well and good to be more aggressive, but if the defense is still allowing the opponent to convert bushels of third downs -- Kentucky was 9-of-15 Saturday night, including 4-of-5 on an infuriating opening drive, all of them eight yards or longer -- there's still a lot of work to be done. Maybe it's just lingering malaise from the Willie Martinez era, in which 7-to-10-yard cushions became a feature, not a bug, of our pass coverage, but the Dawgs' defensive backs still don't seem to know quite where they're supposed to be on a consistent basis. And that's detracting from an otherwise terrific performance by the front seven, which was supposed to be the weak point in this defense as they adjusted to a new alignment. After the game, some of Georgia's defenders admitted they'd let up off the gas in the second half; that had better not be a problem the next few games. The good news: Georgia's final three DI-A opponents of 2010 currently rank 82nd, 85th and 119th in the country in passing offense.
Overall impressions: If Saturday night's game had a bit of a "Twilight Zone" feel to it, perhaps that's because it was a virtual mirror image of last year's game. Last November, Georgia built up a sizable halftime lead, only to see it collapse in a hail of humiliating turnovers in the second half. This past weekend, it was Kentucky's turn to cough the ball up, and that caused them to dig themselves a first-half hole that they were never able to climb out of. There's a tendency to write these types of games off as "fluky," but there was nothing fluky about the determination with which Georgia's front seven forced turnovers, pressured the quarterback, and clamped down on the running game until it was too late to make much of a difference for the Wildcats. If this is what Todd Grantham was talking about when he promised a heightened level of aggressiveness under his direction as defensive coordinator, then Dawg fans have to be excited about what he's already managed to achieve, and how much better the Georgia defense could still get.
Not that everything is perfect on that side of the ball, of course. But the Dawgs woke up Sunday morning to find themselves in sole possession of second place in the SEC East -- and, for the first time in six years, the favorite in the annual grudge match with the Florida Gators. If the pundits and oddsmakers seem to be demonstrating greater and greater confidence in the Dawgs, then they're only mirroring the confidence with which the players appear to be executing. The glaring sore spots from the four-game losing streak -- lackluster offensive-line play, an ineffective ground game, confusion and inconsistency from the defensive front seven -- have been ironed out nicely over the last few weeks. And sure, the quality of opponent during that time has hardly been stellar, but nobody thought Mississippi State or Colorado were supposed to be huge challenges, either. The important thing is the Dawgs have learned how to win, and in dominating fashion. They're playing as a team, and they're doing so with swagger.
Of course, the true test comes this weekend, when the Dawgs face a Florida team that's eaten their lunch 17 out of the past 20 seasons. But the fact that Georgia's players are openly chomping at the bit to get down to Jacksonville says a lot about the confidence they've acquired -- when was the last time you saw even one of Richt's elite Bulldog squads approaching the Cocktail Party that way? That this attitude could be coming from a team that was 1-4 not all that long ago perhaps says a lot about how determined Mark Richt and his players are to silence their doubters and take another shot at returning UGA to dominance.
Player of the game: You've got to give linebacker Justin Houston credit -- after two and a half sacks, a forced fumble, a fumble recovery, a pass breakup and a quarterback hurry, his name is starting to inspire sweaty brows and quavering voices in fan bases across the Southeast. But the engine behind Georgia's third straight scoring outburst was Washaun Ealey, who rumbled for 157 yards on 28 carries and tied Robert Edwards' Georgia record of five TDs scored in a single game. Whatever Ealey has done to alter his mentality and play with such dramatically heightened focus over the past couple weeks, it's been working. He seems destined to remain an integral part of the offense even once Caleb King rejoins the active roster this week.
Stat of the game: +4 -- Georgia's turnover margin against the Wildcats, their third straight game of +2 or greater after having gone without such a game since the season opener. Redressing last year's miserable turnover margin was a key goal for this season's revamped defense, and it's started paying obvious dividends. If the Dawgs can keep this up they'll go a long way toward putting a disappointing season-and-a-half in their rearview mirror.