The three takeaways from Saturday's blowout win over New Mexico State, in no particular order:
- Wow, so it really is possible to score 42 points in a single quarter. (Georgia's average scoring drive in the second quarter against the Aggies: seventy-three seconds.)
- If the Dawgs can rack up 258 net rushing yards on a day when its top four running backs were sidelined for various reasons, our bench might be way deeper at that position than we realized.
- Or maybe NMSU's run defense is just that bad (111th in the nation as of this morning).
Now, what do these three bullet points impart for this Saturday's revenge match with the Auburn Tigers -- a game that, with a bad Kentucky team the only remaining SEC contest for the Dawgs, will effectively decide the SEC East? Not. A. Thing.
At the risk of sounding like Morgan Freeman's voice-over narration in "The Shawshank Redemption," I'd like to be able to tell you that Georgia's ground game, with Isaiah Crowell and Carlton Thomas presumably back in the mix this week, is going to pave an Auburn run defense ranked 10th in the SEC and giving up a hair over 185 yards per game. I'd like to be able to tell you that our much-improved secondary is going to shut down an Auburn passing game that hasn't had a good day since the beginning of October against any opponent that isn't named Ole Miss, and that Jarvis Jones and the rest of our pass rush is going to terrorize an Auburn offensive line that's given up just under three sacks a game in SEC play.
I'd like to be able to tell you all that . . . but I can't, and it's not because Georgia doesn't have the talent, or the momentum, or even the coaching. And it's certainly not because we don't have enough motivation. It's because of something I've ranted about at length in the past: Georgia's utter inability to maintain focus and play well when something good's just happened.
We saw it two weeks ago in Jacksonville: When the chips were stacked against the Dawgs, they did great. Gators get a tipped-ball INT deep in Georgia territory, Dawgs sack Brantley on two straight plays to take them out of field-goal range. Down two TDs right before halftime, Bacarri Rambo forces a fumble deep inside Florida territory and Aaron Murray fires a fourth-down TD pass to Michael Bennett that swings the momentum. It was when things were going well that Georgia seemed intent on giving away as much momentum as possible: Immediately following Georgia's first score of the game, Jeff Demps returns the kickoff 99 yards for a TD, and then when the Dawgs tie the game up in the third quarter, we give up another long kickoff return to Andre Debose that basically gives the Gators a free field goal.
It wasn't just the Florida game, either. Against Vandy, we got a field goal on our first drive of the second half to go up by 16, then immediately gave up another kickoff return for TD, and then at the end of the game, with less than 10 seconds standing between us and the win, we let a punt get blocked and give the 'Dores one last chance. Against Ole Miss, we had an easy shot at going into halftime up 24-7, but gave up a long punt return right before the break and ended up with a (temporarily) suspenseful game after all.
I could rehash the entire litany of such screw-ups, which actually goes back several years, but the sum of it all is this: Georgia still isn't good at maintaining momentum, much less building on it, when things take a turn for the good. Just as there's one last hurdle to clear on Georgia's path to the SEC East title, there's one last hurdle to clear on our journey from mediocre team back to a great one: the mental aspect of the game. We've recruited great talent; our coaching has gotten demonstrably better on both sides of the ball, with Mike Bobo eliminating some of the balance-for-balance's-sake thinking that drove many of his questionable strategies in the past and Todd Grantham fashioning the defense into one that's stomping on opponents' necks the way Georgia used to. The last missing piece is the mental angle, eliminating the kinds of stupid mistakes that arguably lost the South Carolina game for us and turned potentially dominating performances against teams like Vandy and Florida into games that were a lot closer than they should've been.
In fairness, one can point to improvements we've made between the ears in addition to what we've accomplished on the field. Look at how much more dialed-in and focused on the fundamentals the defense is compared to all those years under Willie Martinez -- did you think you'd live to see the Dawgs rank third in the nation in third-down defense? And for the Dawgs to shake off a two-touchdown deficit in Jacksonville, the site of so many monstrous difficulties and disappointments in the past, was a testament to how the Dawgs now win games they once found every way possible to lose.
But with all due respect to their stirring performance from Cocktail Party weekend, this weekend, against Auburn, is the game where we'll get definitive evidence of what the 2011 Dawgs are made of, whether the improvement we've seen lately is a sign that things are turning around in Athens or the current seven-game winning streak is just a sort of "dead-cat bounce" you hear economists refer to when discussing the recession. South Carolina served up the SEC East on a silver platter by losing to Arkansas on Saturday, so now, against a young, statistically inferior team that's nevertheless clawed its way to 6-3, it's the Dawgs' decision as to whether they claim the top spot in the division or pass it right back to the Gamecocks. The Tigers were all but left for dead when Cam Newton, Nick Fairley and 16 other starters left their national-championship team this past spring, but they've found ways to win. This Saturday we'll find out if Georgia can do the same.