It's amazing the difference one loss can make. Barely a month ago, the Georgia Bulldogs were riding high in the top five of the national rankings at 5-0 and unloading points by the bucketload on any defense unfortunate enough to cross their path. It all came undone in one humiliating night in Columbia, S.C., that booted the Dawgs out of the top 10 and, arguably, out of the national consciousness. When the hangover from that loss lingered into an indifferent victory over a terrible Kentucky team two weeks later, it seemed the Dawgs had plummeted back into an old pattern — good enough to win a bunch of games, but not good enough to make any of them matter.
But it's also amazing the difference one win can make. Somewhere between the sleepwalk against Kentucky and the short plane ride to Jacksonville, Fla., the team challenged itself, an underachieving defense woke up, and the Dawgs decided it was time to play like an SEC championship contender once again. The resulting game they played in Jacksonville was anything but pretty, but in the span of four hours it accomplished three very important things: It dropped control of the SEC East right back into the Bulldogs' laps; it swung momentum in the Georgia-Florida rivalry back to the Dawgs, where it hadn't been since the first George Bush was president; and it restored the Georgia players' belief that they could play like champions.
And now, after dismantling Florida, Ole Miss and Auburn by the aggregate score of 92-19, the Dawgs have only a couple of sizable underdogs standing between them and a date in the Georgia Dome for the Southeastern Conference championship, their second straight and fifth overall under Mark Richt. Not only that, but they actually punched their ticket before their presumptive opponents, the once invincible Alabama Crimson Tide, will punch theirs. That Alabama defense, which hadn't allowed a single opponent to score more than 20 points coming into the Texas A&M game, has now allowed 853 yards over its last two games, including 549 passing. Alabama remains one of the best teams in the country, and will likely be favored over Georgia when they meet in Atlanta in three weeks. Nevertheless, 2012 no longer looks like a season in which all the SEC East contenders were simply playing for the right to get blown out of the Georgia Dome by Alabama or LSU. The title game remains daunting, but it's no longer impossible.
The Dawgs' biggest challenge for the next few weeks — besides shifting gears from Georgia Southern and Georgia Tech's triple-option attacks back to the pro-style offense of the Crimson Tide — will be maintaining focus and not letting themselves buy too heavily into their own hype. Georgia's own players admitted they didn't play quite as hard in the first half of the season because their press clippings and top-five ranking seemed to have convinced them they were already good; it was only after Shawn Williams' comments challenging his teammates in the run-up to the Cocktail Party that the Dawgs truly began dominating opponents the way they'd been expected to all along. Hopefully it won't require another public call-out from a player to stoke the Dawgs' competitive fire in Atlanta.
But if you cock your head and squint a little, this season starts to look an awful lot like 2007. A highly regarded Georgia team goes on the road to face an SEC arch-rival in a challenging but winnable game, craps the bed from the opening gun and walks away with a humiliating loss, then follows that up with a shaky road win against an underdog they should've dominated. And right as the season is looking lost, the Dawgs gather themselves up and punch Florida in the mouth. The confidence from that game sends them on a tear, they rip through one opponent after another for the next month, and by the end of the season they look like one of the nation's most dominant teams.
There's just one major difference between the Dawgs' situation in 2007 and their situation now: That 2007 squad didn't get the chance to play for the SEC title — and what a lost opportunity that was, because who knows what they might've accomplished in the Georgia Dome against LSU (or in the Superdome a month later). This year's team, however, doesn't need to sit around biting its nails and hoping someone above them in the standings suffers a loss. They've already clinched the East Division championship, all their goals are still ahead of them — and a season that once looked lost might yet be a major statement season for a Georgia program that seems to have finally found its way out of the wilderness.