Take a step back and think about where you were on the first day of September. Say a mysterious man came to you and offered you a deal: By the time Georgia hit its bye week, which came more or less halfway through the 2011 season, he could magically make the Bulldogs 5-2, 4-1 in conference play. He wouldn't tell you which games were wins and which were losses, or how Georgia arrived at those outcomes in terms of their actual play or anything like that, but he could promise you those numbers. You'd probably have taken that deal, right?
Well, that's where Georgia stands today -- and not only that, their chances of winning the SEC East seem to increase daily, as South Carolina has lost both its top running back (to injury) and its top quarterback (to, well, being Stephen Garcia), while Florida has taken a death blow in the standings from back-to-back-to-back conference thumpings and Tennessee is still struggling to right itself following the chaos of the late Phil Fulmer and Lane Kiffin eras. Georgia still loses the head-to-head tiebreaker with the Gamecocks, but if the 'Cocks lose one game -- which could happen as soon as next week, when they travel to Knoxville, where they've won only once in their program's history -- suddenly the Dawgs are in the division driver's seat.
But how much of that is a product of the Dawgs showing genuine improvement over lackluster 2009 and 2010 campaigns, and how much of it is the rest of the East Division being, quite frankly, a shadow of its former dominant self? Time to assign grades and find out.
QUARTERBACKS: You could look at Aaron Murray's 2011 performance one of two ways. There's the glass-half-empty assessment, which looks at a guy who was the overwhelming choice for preseason first-team All-SEC honors at SEC Media Days back in July and wonders why he's only fourth in the conference in passing efficiency (behind Tyler Bray and Jarrett Lee, no less), particularly since he's been spared the pain of having to deal with Alabama's or LSU's defense. Or there's the glass-half-full take, which presumes Georgia's passing game was always going to take a hit from the absence of A.J. Green in the receiving corps and applauds Murray for having kept things together as well as he has. Even though Murray has looked less than crisp at times this season, I gravitate toward the latter view, especially when you consider how this offense ground to a halt last season when A.J. was unavailable. You can see Murray beginning to build a rapport with some of his receivers, particularly Malcolm Mitchell, so there's no reason to think that the proverbial "sophomore slump" for Murray will be anything more than a shallow dip. Grade: B
RUNNING BACKS: There's not much you can say about Isaiah Crowell that hasn't already been said, but when you've got a true freshman who's already notched three 100-yard performances this season and who's on pace to crack the 1,000 yard mark for the regular season despite not even starting a couple games, it's clear Crowell is everything he was hyped up to be when he signed with the Dawgs back in February. It's also been heartening to see the much-maligned Carlton Thomas make some big plays in his proper role as a change-of-pace back; he's actually first in yards-per-carry average (4.9) among all Georgia players with at least seven carries on the season. Grade: B+
RECEIVERS/TIGHT ENDS: To steal a turn of phrase from Rick Pitino, A.J. Green is not walking through that door, Georgia fans. However, Malcolm Mitchell has walked through that door, and while he's not on A.J.'s level just yet, he's shown the hands and breakaway speed that indicate he could get there before too long. Other than that, it's been a bit of a mixed bag, honestly; the tight end corps, hailed (deservedly) as the nation's best, hasn't put up quite the eye-popping stats predicted for them, though that has a lot to do with them being targeted by opposing defenses and being used frequently in blocking situations to bolster a thin offensive line. The real head-scratcher is how Tavarres King -- the grizzled veteran of the unit following A.J.'s departure -- could only have 246 yards through seven games, and how two guys with the physical gifts of King and Michael Bennett could be dropping so many passes. Time to bust out the tennis-ball machine again? Grade: C+
OFFENSIVE LINE: Had this report card been issued immediately following the Boise State game, the line probably would've received a big fat F for looking slow, out-of-shape, and generally inferior to a Boise State defensive front they dwarfed in size. They've made substantial progress since then, though, visible through the holes they've opened up for Isaiah Crowell and Carlton Thomas in the rejuvenated running game. Pass protection has improved, too -- since the Boise debacle, in which Aaron Murray got put on his back six times, the line has only averaged a sack and a half given up per game. The Dawgs could still stand to make a bit of a stronger push up front, but overall this hasn't been a bad showing -- let's just hope this paper-thin unit can keep it up down the stretch. Grade: B-
DEFENSIVE LINE: What a difference two gigantic man-beasts at nose tackle make. In contrast to last season, when any team with a competent running back and a remotely mobile QB could run circles around the Dawgs' front seven, this year's line has almost completely taken away "run up the middle" as an option for opposing offenses. Big things were predicted for Todd Grantham's reworked 3-4 alignment once he finally got the personnel he needed to run it properly, and it looks like he has -- the Dawgs have held their first seven opponents to an average of only 102 rushing yards per game, a good 45 yards less than what they averaged in 2010. Grade: B+
LINEBACKERS: Is it too much of an exaggeration to say it's been a bit feast-or-famine for this unit? When they're on, they're really on -- Jarvis Jones has been a one-man wrecking crew on the outside, leading the team with 10 tackles for loss and four sacks, and the team as a whole is on pace to increase its TFL total by more than 25 percent compared to last year. They notched nine total sacks against Ole Miss and Mississippi State and followed that up by helping to hold Tennessee to negative net rushing yardage on their own field. Containing rushers on the outside, though, is still a problem -- Marcus Lattimore exploded for 178 yards in the SEC opener a month ago, and last week Vandy frankly embarrassed the defense by racking up 199 yards and two TDs on the ground. They could afford a bad day (barely) against the Commodores, but they won't be able to against Florida, Auburn or Georgia Tech. Grade: B-
DEFENSIVE BACKS: Like the O-line, the defensive secondary had an awful game against Boise State but has looked pretty solid since -- they've only allowed one team to go over 200 passing yards against them since the opener and have allowed a mere three passing TDs during that time. They're a big part of the reason why the Dawgs are fourth in the country with a stingy 27 percent third-down conversion rate after having finished 79th (42 percent) in that category a year ago. The asterisk here, of course, is that the Dawgs have faced a dearth of elite QBs this season, but after five seasons of "third and Willie," progress is progress no matter whom it comes against. Grade: B+
SPECIAL TEAMS: Boy howdy, has this been a mixed bag. First, the good: Drew Butler continues to be a beast in the punting game, ranking ninth in the nation with a 46-yard average, and Blair Walsh has put 14 kickoffs into (or, more frequently, out of the back of) the end zone. Punt and KO returns have been so-so as opposed to great, but we all know it's only a matter of time before Brandon Boykin breaks another TD run on a kickoff return. But the bad has been real bad. The ordinarily money Walsh has been just 12-of-20 on field goals this season, and poor punt coverage has driven the Dawgs down to 85th nationally in net punting despite Butler's cannon of a leg. Georgia has also given up TDs on two kickoff returns this year and gotten burned by not one but two fake punts -- one of which involved a South Carolina defensive end rumbling 68 yards to paydirt in a game the Dawgs wound up losing by three points. Overall, it's been a performance that's done nothing to quiet the long-standing calls for Mark Richt to hire a dedicated special-teams coach; the talent is all right there, but somebody sure needs to get their heads screwed on straight. Grade: C-
COACHING: Despite all the "hot seat" talk that has dominated virtually every discussion of the Georgia football program for the last nine months, this is not a coaching staff that appears to be in desperation mode. The defensive has shown massive improvement relative to last season; the offensive play-calling, while conservative, has been competent, and Mike Bobo seems to be cutting down on his tendency to arbitrarily move away from what's working just for the sake of "balance" (of course, it helps when both your passing game and running game are working equally well). Other than the thud against Boise State, you can't really pick out a game this season in which Mark Richt has been outcoached. It's the mental errors -- like the repeated defense/special-teams breakdowns that lost one game to South Carolina and nearly lost another to Vandy last week -- that he and his staff need to cut down on if the Dawgs are to "finish the drill" and complete their journey back to the top of the SEC East. Grade: B
OVERALL: Let's get the big caveat out of the way first -- any talk of Georgia's improvement this season has to be appended with " . . . of course, they're playing a way easier schedule." The four SEC squads Georgia has beaten are a combined 1-13 in conference play (with the one win belonging to Vanderbilt, of all teams). Still, Georgia found a way to lose more than a few winnable games last year; in 2011, they're not only winning those games but dominating them to the extent that Richt and Co. can take their foot completely off the gas for vast stretches of the second half. All things considered, I'm sure Richt will take "Why didn't you score more" over "Why did you lose" on the list of fan-base gripes any day.
He'll also take "Are the Dawgs the new frontrunners in the East" over "Can the Dawgs even save their coach's job," though Georgia's road to the SEC Championship Game is hardly assured. South Carolina seems likely to lose another game, which would put the Dawgs firmly in the division driver's seat, though if Georgia manages to drop one to Florida or Auburn -- either one a distinct possibility, given recent history -- all of a sudden they've got to sit around hoping Carolina loses two more conference games. That could certainly happen too, but it'd be a lot easier for Georgia to just take care of business against the Gators and Tigers without any talk of them "backing into" the division title.
Of course, even if Georgia pulls off the stunner, winning out and rolling into the conference title game with a 7-1 league record, people will still be talking about how they only got there because the rest of the division stinks. And they'll have a point: On the whole, this is probably the weakest the SEC East has ever been. But given the choice between being on top of a weak division or being 3-5 in it -- which is how Georgia finished last year -- we'd all take the former. And as far as Richt's job security is concerned, it'd be hard to fire a coach who's won 10 games and put Tennessee, Florida and Auburn in their place.
That's assuming Georgia wins all those games, of course; if they don't -- particularly if Georgia finds a way to lose yet again to a mediocre Florida team and winds up sitting at home watching the SEC championship on TV -- then Richt's job security is once again open for heated debate. For right now, though, let's spend the bye week being happy (or, at the very least, relieved) that things have turned around to the point where we can even be talking about stuff like division titles, rather than wondering if we'll even swing an invite to the Liberty Bowl. Grade: B