Once again, the Dawgs get a prime opportunity to pull out an inspiring win over the hated Gators, and once again they give it away -- this time in a manner that qualifies as "soul-crushing" even by this series' brutal standards. Three painful lessons from a wild Saturday evening in Jacksonville:
1. Dominating Tennessee and Vanderbilt isn't the same thing as dominating an actual offense. Against the Gators, Georgia's defense made some nice stops at critical junctures in the game -- perhaps none more important than holding Florida scoreless even after Aaron Murray tossed a pick deep inside Georgia territory on the game's very first play from scrimmage -- and they even improved upon the abysmal third-down conversion stats from the Kentucky game. Otherwise, though, there's not much good you can say about a performance in which the struggling Florida offense was allowed to exceed its season average by more than 120 yards. Pass coverage continues to be a concern, but the more glaring deficiency was the way Georgia's front seven continues to be all but helpless against mobile QBs; if Trey Burton can rush for 110 yards and two TDs on just 17 carries, then the prospects for what Cam Newton (or even Josh Nesbitt) can do against the Dawgs become downright frightening. Other than reinstating Chris Rainey and working him into the game plan, it's hard to point to anything new Urban Meyer worked into the game plan over his bye week that the Dawgs hadn't seen before -- and yet they were frequently powerless to stop it.
2. If it's true that you make your own luck, then Georgia still isn't making enough. Sometimes Georgia got handed some lucky breaks that they could've taken advantage of if they'd played them smarter, such as the Trey Burton fumble in the first quarter that a Dawg defender tried to pick up and run with rather than just falling on (and ended up fumbling it right back into the Gators' hands). Other times, though, it really did start to look like the planets had aligned themselves against the Dawgs. Case in point: the Darryl Gamble sack on 2nd-and-9 on the Gators' last drive of regulation. That would've set the Gators back at 3rd-and-17 at their own 40, which would've given the Dawgs a great shot to force a punt and mount a game-winning FG drive with decent field position and plenty of time on the clock. Instead, Florida's fifth false-start penalty of the game negated Gamble's sack . . . and Florida got the first down on the very next play; they eventually punted from the Georgia 40 and pinned the Dawgs way too far back to attempt a serious scoring drive. Even when they screwed up, the Gators managed to end up in better shape. Georgia's at the point where they have to play a virtually flawless game to win in Jacksonville, and they didn't do that Saturday.
3. An SEC East title is effectively off the table for Georgia, and bowl eligibility ain't a sure thing, either. A win against Florida would've kept the Dawgs in second place in the SEC East, with an opportunity to move into a tie for first depending on the outcome of the Florida-South Carolina game in two weeks. The loss, though, drops Georgia to third in the East standings and renders them incapable of winning any kind of tiebreaker against the two teams above them. That may be the least of their worries, though -- at 4-5, Georgia now has to win two of its remaining three games just to earn a bowl invite. One of those wins will obviously come against Idaho State this weekend, but the other one will have to come at the expense of either an Auburn team that's currently No. 2 with a bullet in the BCS standings or a Georgia Tech squad whose triple-option offense unloaded 45 points on the Dawgs the last time they came to Athens. Startling how a season can go from "hopeful" back to "desperate" in the span of a single overtime period, but that's the situation Mark Richt's team is in at the moment.
Overall impressions: There was so much to be proud of in Georgia's performance Saturday -- the way the defense stood up after a disastrous first play on offense; the way Aaron Murray gathered himself up and made great throws after a bad first half; the quickness with which Caleb King shrugged off the rust from a two-game suspension and took control of the rushing attack early; and most of all the way the Dawgs bounced back from a two-TD halftime deficit in maybe the most pressure-packed environment they'll face all season to maintain a chance to win at the very end. That was the kind of comeback we're not accustomed to seeing from the Dawgs in any kind of situation lately, much less a make-or-break Cocktail Party game against a hated arch-rival.
But they still lost in spite of all those positive signs -- mainly because they couldn't keep all those positive trends going for the full 60 minutes. Murray's mini-meltdown in the first half, the defense's inability to maintain momentum, the catchable balls that turned into interceptions, the Florida fumbles that Georgia couldn't hold on to -- they all speak to the same Bulldog mental block that fans have rightly observed in this rivalry for what seems like eons now. It's certainly something that handily predates Mark Richt's tenure -- Ray Goff and Jim Donnan lost just as frequently in Jacksonville, and by margins far greater than the one Georgia lost by the other night -- but Richt's inability to get his team past it, despite all the other metrics by which he's "knocked the lid off" the program during his decade in Athens, will certainly put another black mark on his record at a time when he can ill afford too many more of them. Richt isn't going to get fired just because he couldn't win in Jacksonville (and it should be pointed out that he's highly unlikely to get fired after this season at all), but his detractors will be able to add this game to a growing résumé of disappointments.
No point in dwelling too long on it, though, at least not now. It's probably a good thing that the Dawgs get a layup game against Idaho State this weekend -- it's not a bye week that they could use to stew over their misery and what might have been, but it's an easy enough game that they can take time to lick their wounds, build their confidence back up, and prepare for two of the most important games of the Richt era. As improbable as it may seem right now, a 3-0 run to finish the regular season wouldn't be completely unprecedented, even for a team that's struggling as much as the Dawgs are now -- the reeling 2006 team went on the road and knocked off a fifth-ranked Auburn team, then took out a ranked Georgia Tech team at home and ranked Virginia Tech in the Chick-fil-A bowl; last year's lightly regarded team beat Auburn and GT down the stretch, too. But with Tech no longer the automatic win they were under Chan Gailey and Auburn looking downright invincible, the Dawgs have a lot of work to do if they are to put themselves in a position to beat either. Splitting the two would at least salve some of the hurt from this season by earning the Dawgs a 14th straight bowl invite, but if they can't win either, they will have clinched their first losing season since '96 and put Richt's job on a dangerous precipice.
Player of the game: Aaron Murray may have gone 5-of-14 with one TD and three turnovers in the first half, but after the way he led the Dawgs back in the second, even diehard Gator fans were calling him a baller. Yes, the mental mistakes he made in the opening half were uncharacteristic of what we've seen from the redshirt freshman so far this season, and they were fairly excruciating to watch, but let's be honest, it's not like Georgia players at pretty much every position haven't been making those for years. With the highest yardage output any Georgia QB has had in Jacksonville since 1998, Murray at least showed a glimmer of promise that he can lead a Bulldog turnaround in this series somewhere down the road.
Stat of the game: -3 -- Georgia's turnover margin against the Gators, just a week after going +4 at Kentucky. It doesn't matter what other heroics the Dawgs perform in the Cocktail Party, they're not going to upend an Urban Meyer team with that kind of number. And it's perhaps the clearest sign from Saturday night of just how easily psyched out the Dawgs can be in this game, even when facing arguably the weakest team of Meyer's tenure with the Gators.