ATHENS, Ga. -- Mark Richt tried to put things in perspective after his Georgia team barely hung on for a sloppy 51-44 win against Tennessee on Saturday.
It was an ugly game in a lot of ways for the Bulldogs, but Richt was ecstatic to leave Sanford Stadium with a win -- a particularly timely sentiment for those who remember Georgia’s 2011 game against its next opponent, South Carolina.
“I was just talking to [defensive coordinator Todd] Grantham, and we’ve been around long enough to know that we need to be thankful and glad that we won the game and not gripe and moan about points and yards and all that kind of stuff, because it doesn’t matter,” Richt said after Tennessee gained 478 yards in 85 plays against the Bulldogs. “What matters is winning and playing big when you’ve got to play big. And we did that [Saturday], so I was happy.”
It was good timing for the Bulldogs to feel such emotions after a game, because they bring to mind a highly similar contest from last season -- except Georgia’s coaches and players were on the other end of the outcome when they dropped a 45-42 heartbreaker against South Carolina.
The Bulldogs outperformed the Gamecocks by almost every measure -- total yards, time of possession, first downs, third-down conversions -- but South Carolina made huge, momentum-shifting plays that determined the outcome and prompted coach Steve Spurrier to remark afterward, “Georgia outplayed us, but somehow or another we won the game. Sometimes it happens like that. Somebody was looking out for us tonight.”
That loss was Georgia’s only conference defeat in 2011, although the Bulldogs still believe they blew it against South Carolina, with their mistakes helping the Gamecocks score on a 68-yard fake punt run by defensive lineman Melvin Ingram, a 5-yard returned fumble recovery by Ingram and a 25-yard interception return by Antonio Allen. Plus a botched handoff exchange between quarterback Aaron Murray and tailback Isaiah Crowell led to another fumble that Stephon Gilmore returned 56 yards to the Georgia 5, setting up an additional touchdown.
“Absolutely,” Georgia outside linebacker Jarvis Jones said when asked if the Bulldogs have unfinished business against South Carolina. “I definitely think we should’ve won last year. They challenged us well, but we’re going to watch film, and our coaches are going to put us in the best position to make plays and execute, and we’re going to go up there focused and ready to play.”
They will need to be ready, because Saturday night’s visit to Columbia, S.C., will be the most pressure-packed environment in which Georgia will have performed in some time -- and not just because ESPN’s College GameDay will be in town for the highly anticipated rematch.
The teams are side-by-side in this week’s Associated Press poll -- Georgia (5-0, 3-0 SEC) at No. 5 and South Carolina (5-0, 3-0) at No. 6 -- and the eyes of the college football world will fall on Williams-Brice Stadium on Saturday night because of the game’s obvious impact on the SEC and BCS races.
With also-unbeaten Florida (4-0, 3-0) hosting No. 4 LSU (5-0, 1-0) on Saturday as well, the winner of South Carolina-Georgia suddenly could be alone in first in the SEC East by the end of the night.
“Either way, the winner of that game is still going to be in first place, be in control of their own destiny. And the loser’s going to be two games behind that opponent,” Richt said. “... So yeah, it is a big, big game right now; when you start playing this deep into the conference season and you’ve got two undefeateds, it’s huge.”
In a weird way, the Bulldogs say their method in remaining undefeated on Saturday actually might have helped them. As unsightly as the error-filled outing might have been, the Bulldogs still managed to overcome their mistakes against Tennessee, where they were unable to do so against the Gamecocks a year ago.
“It reminds me a lot of the South Carolina game and I think the biggest thing is we had the mental toughness to find a way to win in the fourth quarter,” Grantham said. “So we’ve just got to continue to work to improve and make sure those things don’t happen.”
If the Bulldogs are to win in South Carolina, they expect to have to win in the fourth quarter again. The annual game between the two division rivals is frequently a nailbiter, with eight of the 11 meetings from Richt’s UGA tenure settled by a touchdown or less.
So if series history holds true, the teams’ margin for error will be small, which is why Bulldogs offensive coordinator Mike Bobo is thankful Murray and freshman tailbacks Todd Gurley and Keith Marshall were able to bounce back and perform well down the stretch against Tennessee after making confidence-shaking errors earlier in the game.
“It gives me a heart attack, but I love having adversity and see how your guys respond,” Bobo said. “You don’t want it easy all the time. You want them guys to have to answer, 'How are you going to respond when it’s tough? How are you going to respond when you make a mistake?' I thought Aaron Murray did a nice job, and those backs did an awesome job in coming back after turnovers.”