ATHENS, GA - NOVEMBER 12: Isaiah Crowell #1 of the Georgia Bulldogs rushes upfield against the Auburn Tigers at Sanford Stadium on November 12, 2011 in Athens, Georgia. (Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)
Even after a stunning domination in the Deep South's Oldest Rivalry, it's still too early to call the Bulldogs a great team. But you can go ahead and say they're a really, really good one again.
Exactly nine years and two days ago, I walked into Jordan-Hare Stadium in Auburn and witnessed what I still consider to be the Buck-Belue-to-Lindsay-Scott of my generation: the "Prayer on the Plains," David Greene's 19-yard touchdown pass to Michael Johnson on fourth-and-the-season that clinched Georgia's first-ever SEC East championship and a shot at our first conference title in two decades.
I thought about that play a lot last week -- wondering if the Dawgs would need a play like that to get past a competitive Auburn squad and continue their improbable run to Atlanta, and if so, whether they'd get it. While such heroics were a staple of Mark Richt's first six or seven years in Athens, they'd been distressingly hard to come by since.
But by the end of the game, the "Prayer on the Plains" was the last thing on my mind -- Georgia didn't need a prayer Saturday night, and Auburn didn't have one. With everything riding on the line and a strictly binary pair of possibilities in front of them -- win, and you've all but sewn up the SEC East; lose, and you get to sit and wait to see which ACC team you're going to face in the Chick-fil-A Bowl -- the Dawgs played their most complete game of the year, probably their most complete game since demolishing Hawaii in the Sugar Bowl at the end of the 2007 season. That Sugar Bowl win was the last hurrah for a program that would trend consistently downward in the three seasons that followed it, but Saturday's annihilation of the defending national champs signaled that we may be finally be headed back upward again.
There were a lot of great plays to talk about afterward -- any of Aaron Murray's four touchdown passes from the first half, Bacarri Rambo's pick-six, the Quintavious Harrow hit on kickoff coverage that Mark Richt pointed to as his single favorite play from the evening. But the play I think I'll remember most came less than 90 seconds before halftime, after Drew Butler shanked a punt out-of-bounds to the Georgia 41.
If you were waiting for another momentum-swinging brain fart on the part of Georgia's special teams, that was about as close as we came, but on Auburn's first play of the ensuing drive, Jarvis Jones raced in and swallowed QB Clint Moseley up for a seven-yard sack. Whatever momentum had been on the side of the Tigers -- who hadn't earned a first down the entire quarter and who badly needed some glimmer of hope right before halftime -- that play took it away in a matter of seconds. Faced with a golden opportunity to hand momentum back to the opponent and perhaps make a runaway game competitive again, the Dawgs jumped right back on the Tigers' backs and resumed pounding.
So that was a positive sign in the abstract, intangible sense. One very tangible (and highly satisfying) development from Saturday's action, though, was to see the Dawgs embody the kind of old-school, trench-dominating team that for a lot of us represents not just what Georgia football should be but what the SEC as a whole is, too. Not to dismiss Aaron Murray's contribution to the night's success -- 14-of-18, four TDs, no picks is at the very least a model of efficiency -- but the running game in the second half was a ruthless, cold-blooded instrument: Over the final 30 minutes of the game, the Dawgs only threw two passes yet still averaged nearly six yards on each of their 34 plays. Somebody once said that the surest sign of a dominant team is when you run the ball, they know you're going to run the ball, and there's still not a damn thing they can do about it; the second half might have bored those who were hoping for the Dawgs to roll up 60 points on the Tigers, but it was dominating football just the same.
And yet even as the margin of victory got ridiculous, it was heartening to see both sides play a very clean game. After the acrimony that last year's game devolved into on the Plains, I was concerned that there might be some ill-advised score-settling on the field in Athens, but that never really happened. What used to be a pretty friendly rivalry (at least by SEC standards) had started to get ugly in the wake of the 2010 matchup, but hopefully both the teams and the fans have gotten that out of their system and the game can return to the family-reunion atmosphere it used to have.
So now the Dawgs are one win away from a trip to Atlanta that perhaps only Phil Steele saw coming this season. Even with that achievement very much within our grasp, let's not read too much into it: We tried to pooh-pooh South Carolina's SEC East title last year because they'd basically climbed to the top of a pile of solidly mediocre teams, and that description certainly applies should Georgia finish off their title run with a win over Kentucky this weekend. Even the dominating victory over Auburn, the only D-IA team with a winning record Georgia's beaten this year, is valuable more as a symbolic revenge game than as a true yardstick for elite status.
But while the jury's still out as to whether Georgia is a great team again, Mark Richt and his coaching staff deserve credit for having fashioned them back into a damn good one. Last year the SEC East was wide-open and the Bulldogs still couldn't manage to do anything more than flail about in the middle of it; now, with Georgia's arch-rivals at least temporarily weakened and a new spirit seeming to energize the program, the table is at least set for a return to the old dominant ways. And at least for the next couple weeks, that's enough.