Nobody's going to confuse Vanderbilt or Tennessee with elite teams, but when you've won two straight games by a combined score of 84-14, you must be doing something right. Is it possible that the Dawgs have finally found their footing?
1. Slowly but surely, the defense is getting it. For the second straight week, Georgia faced a team with a shifty, versatile running back and a mobile QB -- the exact combination that led to utter ruin in games against Mississippi State and Colorado -- and for the second straight week the Dawg defense shut 'em down. The linebackers got to the ball quickly and tackled well; freshman Kwame Geathers, getting increased playing time at nose tackle, helped free them up by drawing repeated double-teams. The results: Tailback Warren Norman, 2009's SEC Freshman of the Year, tallied only 23 yards on seven carries, and QB Larry Smith was neutralized as both a runner (three carries, six net yards) and a passer (5-of-14 for 70 yards and a pick). Vandy only converted one of 11 third downs, perhaps the biggest Achilles heel of the Georgia D up to this point. If this is the Dawg defense peaking, they're picking a fine time to do it, with a matchup with Kentucky's diabolical running game right around the corner.
2. The reports of Washaun Ealey's demise (and Carlton Thomas', for that matter) have been greatly exaggerated. When Ealey's crushing fumble near the goal line at Mississippi State was followed by the post-injury resurgence of Caleb King, it looked like Ealey's once-bright star in the Georgia backfield was fading fast. But then Ealey was called upon to carry most of the load for the Dawgs following King's suspension, and he stepped up in a big way on Saturday: 17 carries, 123 net yards, one touchdown, and -- perhaps most importantly -- no fumbles. Even Carlton Thomas, previously seen being ordered on futile runs up the middle that started seeming almost cruel, tallied 40 yards on four carries (half of which went for touchdowns). Vanderbilt's run defense has been fairly sievelike this season, granted, but Kentucky's hasn't been much better -- and the performances by Ealey and Thomas had to be huge confidence-builders. If this is a sign that the offensive line is starting to gel, too, then having Ealey, Thomas, and (eventually) King in the same backfield could turn this team into the offensive powerhouse we all thought it might be from the get-go.
3. The SEC East is a wasteland -- and believe it or not, the Dawgs still have a chance to win it. If, on the night that the Dawgs flew home from Colorado with a 1-4 record, someone had told you that they'd still only be a game out of first place in the SEC East at the midpoint of the season, would you have believed them? Yet that's exactly where UGA sits after the shocking upset losses by South Carolina and Florida over the weekend. Here's what a bizarre little circular firing squad the East has become: Vandy, even after taking a 43-point shellacking from a Georgia team that had been left for dead, still controls their own destiny with respect to the division title. Georgia, oddly enough, does not, but it wouldn't take a miracle for them to find themselves right back in the hunt for a trip to Atlanta, even after a four-game skid that counts as the worst of Mark Richt's tenure.
Overall impressions: OK, so . . . is it possible that, even in the depths of their 1-4 start to the 2010 season, the Dawgs were never quite as bad a team as they looked? South Carolina may have just lost to Kentucky, but they also snapped the then-top-ranked Alabama Crimson Tide's 19-game winning streak, and Georgia played them a fair bit closer than Bama did. Georgia may have lost to Mississippi State, but so did Florida -- at home, no less -- and they didn't look any better against MSU than we did. Colorado? . . . OK, there's no way to spin that loss, but still, given what's transpired over the past couple weeks, that Dawg team that looked so slack and poorly coached for an entire month may have just been a talented but flawed young team that caught more than its share of bad breaks.
None of this is meant to let the coaches off the hook for their lack of preparation or imagination during the period that A.J. Green was sidelined, nor the players for their mental errors and off-the-field distractions. But the stuff that Bulldog Nation was (rightfully) up in arms about seems to be getting fixed. The offensive line seems to be finding a combination that works for both run-blocking and pass protection, while the defensive front is playing tougher and smarter. Against Vanderbilt, the team even found a way to dominate without depending on A.J. Green to carry them (Green's presence certainly stretched the Commodores' defense, but his three catches for 64 yards were actually third behind Kris Durham and Tavarres King).
It could all come crashing down against Kentucky this week, of course, or in Jacksonville the week after that. On the other hand, if this improvement does continue and the Dawgs finish the season with a bow-eligible record and a decent spot in the East Division standings, it'll be hard not to look back on the first month of the season as a missed opportunity, wondering why it took a team this talented that long to get its stuff together. But at a point in the season when it looked like all hope was lost, two straight blowouts in loseable games show that this team isn't even close to packing it in. That alone should give Georgia fans some hope -- and give the Dawgs' embattled coach some breathing room as he and his staff gear up for a make-or-break 2011.
Player of the game: There are those who will point to the crowning (er, "collaring) of Uga VIII before the Vandy game as the turning point that sparked this team's good fortune after nearly a year without an "official" mascot, and far be it from me to doubt the power of the Uga bloodline. But on a less superstitious note, Washaun Ealey definitely deserves some props for shaking off a frustrating, embarrassing couple of months and having a spectacular game in his renewed role as the Dawgs' featured back. His 123 total yards made up by far his best performance since he steamrolled Georgia Tech last November, and his 58-yard run to set up the Dawgs' first touchdown was by far the longest rush by any Georgia RB this season. The Georgia running game looks like it'll be in good shape as it heads up to Lexington to face the SEC's second-worst run defense this Saturday.
Stat of the game: 14 -- Georgia's national rank in total defense as of today, with an average of less than 300 yards allowed per game. Don't look now, but that same unit that looked so addled in its attempts to pick up Todd Grantham's 3-4 scheme a few weeks ago is slowly fashioning itself into a defense that's living up to its considerable talent level. For all the talk this season about Mark Richt's Georgia tenure potentially being on life support, the dividends being paid by his much-publicized defensive housecleaning are beginning to stand out as a major reason for giving him time to complete his turnaround effort.