Athens, Ga.—As a Georgia fan asked me in Jacksonville last Saturday during the Bulldogs’ discouraging loss to Florida, “After what has happened the last month to this team, what is really left for them to play for?”
It was a great question.
After four consecutive wins in September to start the 2015 season, climbing as high as sixth in the national rankings, the Bulldogs plummeted in October, losing three of four games. Dreams of a spot in the College Football Playoff have been transformed to the realization that even a conference divisional title is not possible at this point.
But, more so than the fact most of Georgia’s games the last month have ended in defeat is rather how the Bulldogs played in those games. Their lone victory—against Missouri at home—was a narrow 9-to-6 decision after entering the game as more than a two-touchdown favorite. At Tennessee, Georgia held a 24-3 lead at one point before losing 38-31, marking the second-worst blown lead (21 points) in the program’s history. And, as far as the setbacks to Alabama and Florida by a combined 65-to-13 score, those games were over by halftime.
The month of October has led to Mark Richt sitting on the proverbial hot seat—and, for the head coach, it’s hotter than ever before. Still, for the head Bulldog of them all, he appears optimistic about the rest of the 2015 campaign, recently mentioning 2011—a season Georgia started 0-2 before winning 10 consecutive games—as an example of when his Bulldogs had an instant turnaround.
“You need to really focus on what you can control—that’s your job,” Richt replied last night when asked about turning around this season. “Our players and our coaches need to keep from dwelling on anything other than what do [we] do on this play, what do [we] do on this day, and what do [we] do as far as preparation…”
Still, the only way Georgia possibly even comes close to reaching its preseason expectations is to win the rest of its regular-season contests—Kentucky, Auburn, Georgia Southern, and Georgia Tech—plus, capture a victory in a bowl game. At this point, although such expectations are seemingly a very tall, likely insurmountable order, there are some who believe they’re quite obtainable.
“I’m optimistic about what we can do in the remaining games we have,” senior John Theus said this week. “It’s up to us to come to work every day, put ourselves in the best position, and take the game plan and execute it.”
Theus, a starting offensive tackle, is an integral part of a Georgia offense which enters Saturday having not scored a touchdown in 28 consecutive possessions—a current streak which ranks as the second-highest in the FBS. Theus is also part of a likely major shakeup on offense. After the same five linemen have started at the same five positions the entire year, it appears for the Kentucky game, Theus could move from left tackle to right tackle, Kolton Houston from right tackle to left guard, Isaiah Wynn from left guard to left tackle, and Dyshon Sims could replace Greg Pyke as the starting right guard.
Whether for Kentucky, or any of the remaining four, hopefully five games this season, the question arises how the Bulldogs can possibly be motivated after enduring one of the worst months for Georgia football in recent memory?
“Each and every game is something special; you only get so many a year,” tight end Jeb Blazevich said. “Whether you win or you lose [beforehand], every [player] has ‘that thing’—why they play.” Blazevich added “that thing” is what gets each player motivated for the upcoming game, and not the team’s success, or failure, in previous games.
After Georgia’s tight ends made 31 receptions last season, even more production was expected from Blazevich and company in 2015, especially considering first-year offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer’s supposed fondness of using the tight end in the passing game. However, as the offense under Schottenheimer has sputtered, the Bulldogs’ tight ends have become more so blockers, and what was considered perhaps the nation’s best tight-end corps in the preseason has been limited to 15 catches this year.
Defensively, although Georgia’s young defenders performed adequately last month, there has been disappointing individual play from a couple of those who figured to be standouts. Yet, despite any individual disappointments, there are those defenders who have been pleasant surprises this season, including during the gloomy month of October, like Jake Ganus.
Ganus, who transferred from UAB with only one year left of eligibility, entered fall camp as Georgia’s second-string Will linebacker. Nonetheless, starting all eight games, Ganus has recorded a team-high 55 tackles, a team-tying two interceptions, and is arguably the Bulldogs’ defensive MVP at this point.
“Win them all, starting with Kentucky this Saturday,” declared a confident Ganus when asked for his personal goal for the remainder of this season. “We got some big games left…we can still do some good things [this season]. There’s a lot still left on the table. We just have to keep fighting.”
Indeed, the Bulldogs will have to keep fighting, and then some, for them to go on a winning streak following a forgettable four-game stretch. But, it’s happened before under Richt, and during besides the aforementioned 2011 season. I’m reminded of 2001 and the head coach’s first season when, like this year, after losing three of its first eight games, Georgia won the remainder of its regular-season games, including two as underdogs against ranked teams. In 2006, a Bulldogs’ squad which had lost four of its first 10 games won their final three games of the season—all against ranked teams. And, three years later in 2009, after suffering one of the worst home losses of the Richt era against Kentucky, Georgia upset seventh-ranked Georgia Tech, and then won its bowl game.
In order to turn around this season, as was the case in previous seasons under Richt, the first step is to believe there still is a lot to play for. But, what comes after that?
“You got to stay positive, and you have to stay united,” Richt said. “We’ve always been able to do that. And, I have a lot of faith we’ll be able to do it again.”