ATHENS, GA - SEPTEMBER 1: Alex Zordich #15 of the Buffalo Bulls scrambles against the Georgia Bulldogs at Sanford Stadium on September 1, 2012 in Athens, Georgia. (Photo by Scott Cunningham/Getty Images)
The 2012 Bulldogs proved they can play down to the level of their opponent. But a bunch of other questions about the Dawgs remain unanswered.
For a long time I've argued in favor of Georgia opening its football seasons with legit name-brand opponents (think Boise State last year, Oklahoma State in '07) rather than cupcakes, for two reasons. One, it gets the sportswriters talking about you early: Think Alabama would be getting as much ink right now if they'd gone and blown Central Michigan off the field Saturday? Second, it grounds you, prevents you from thinking you've gone and accomplished anything special when in fact you've still got tons to work on. Remember how happy we all were with the team's performance after they blew out Louisiana-Lafayette in the opener two years ago? Remember what happened next?
So if you wanted to try and put a positive spin on things, you could say Georgia's season-opening win over Buffalo represents the best of both worlds: It showed us what we needed to work on without any real risk of a straight-up loss. That's about as happy a face as I can put on it, though. The trouble spots have all been laid bare, and perplexingly enough, they're all stuff we thought was going to be the strength of the squad this year.
By this, of course, I mean the defense. Two main excuses — OK, sorry, explanations, I'll be nice — have been offered for their underwhelming performance in the opener. The first, directly from Mark Richt, was that "the heat and humidity was definitely a factor," to which I can only respond: Come on, Mark, don't piss on my leg and tell me it's heat and humidity. It's not like this is his first rodeo in the Deep South; I remember the air being just as thick and gross when Georgia opened the season against Georgia Southern in '08, and we still held Southern's grueling triple-option out of the end zone until late in the third when the Dawgs were already up 38-0. Now, I'll grant that our defense was out on the field a good bit against the Bulls — that's what happens when their offense needs nine or 10 plays to score and yours only needs four or five, and paradoxically, it probably didn't help that Todd Gurley's kickoff-return TD put the D right back on the field in the first quarter. Still, it all goes back to conditioning — a problem that plagued us in last year's opener, too — and I'm not sure how many people "We weren't conditioned to throttle a MAC team playing a thousand miles from home" is supposed to reassure.
The other explanation given for Saturday's performance is the suspensions on defense. Now we're getting somewhere; I suspect the linebacking corps sorely missed Alec Ogletree, for the emotional spark he would've provided if nothing else, and having guys like Bacarri Rambo and Sanders Commings on the field might've helped in those frequent instances when Buffalo's Branden Oliver or Alex Zordich broke contain and got into the secondary. But then you have to ask yourself why they managed to get past the front seven to begin with, and that's not an issue that's as simple as Ogletree being on the sideline.
The best explanation I can offer, not that it's a pleasant one, is just plain old-fashioned apathy. When you've been hearing for seven months solid about how you're one of the best defenses in the country, and your first game is widely viewed as just a tune-up before the real action begins in Week 2, I can see how it'd be tough to stay focused. For their part, the defense did stiffen up after what I can only imagine was a halftime speech from Todd Grantham so profane it peeled the paint off the locker-room walls; after allowing 242 yards in the first half, they cut it down to 105 in the second, 75 of that on Buffalo's final scoring drive, which obviously came way too late to matter. And it does bear mentioning that despite Georgia's secondary being short-handed, Buffalo only connected on two passes all day that were longer than 20 yards.
And it's not like the entire day was just one long slog, because there was plenty to get excited about, first and foremost being Todd Gurley — not just his first-quarter touchdown run, nor the electrifying kickoff return, but the way he shook off cramps to come back in and peel off a 55-yard TD run to ice the game. Aaron Murray looked rusty early, but once he got in sync with his receivers — who were perhaps the most consistent unit on the entire team — he showed why his deep ball is as pretty as any QB's in the conference, perhaps even the country. Opening the season turnover-free for the first time in five years was reassuring, too.
So what does it all mean for the trip out to Mizzou this weekend? It's still impossible to tell, and again, that's the problem when you open against an opponent that's so far away from you talent-wise. Despite their blowout win over a bad I-AA team on Saturday, the Tigers are still weak on both lines, but they've got a mobile quarterback and a bunch of weapons at wide receiver potent enough that it sure would be nice to have the full starting lineup back in the secondary. Had the Bulldog front seven dominated Buffalo the way they were supposed to, it'd be easy — not automatic, but easy — to feel confident about the team as they prepare to head into unfamiliar territory. As it stands, all we can do is cross our fingers and hope for some combination of three things: 1) that Grantham's gotten through to the defense and they'll play like they give a bit more of a crap next week; 2) that maybe Rambo or Ogletree will get their suspension lifted; or 3) that it's not as humid in Columbia as it was in Athens.
If all that sounds like shakier ground than you expected the nation's No. 6 team to be treading upon at this point in the season, you're not the only one. It's important to remember that nobody's hitting the panic button in Athens just yet, nor should they be. It does appear, however, that we have taken one pass at the snooze alarm. It remains to be seen whether we can exhibit the collective willpower to make that the only one.