For the past several seasons, Mark Richt’s Georgia Bulldogs have spoken of goals as a tiered process. The most common version was a list:
- Win the SEC East.
- Play for an SEC Championship.
- Let the rest sort itself out.
This year, the Bulldogs have been much more straightforward. Their goal is the BCS National Championship Game in Pasadena. Admittedly, that goal is not decidedly different from years past, as winning the SEC East and the SEC Championship would most assuredly put the Dawgs in the championship game. But the 2013 team has expressed its aspirations with a greater sense of purpose.
Fortunately for Georgia, the ultimate goal is still very much intact following a 38-35 loss to the Clemson Tigers on Saturday.
The Worst Might be Behind Georgia
While Georgia’s offense may have disappointed at times on Saturday, it remains the strength of the team. The defense, however, is defined by youth, inexperience and need for improvement. For that reason, Clemson was a terrible matchup for the Bulldogs in a season opener.
The Georgia defense should improve with experience, and the Bulldogs might not face another offense of Clemson’s caliber this season. Furthermore, if safety Josh Harvey-Clemons proves to be the playmaker that he has been touted to be, the Bulldogs' defense could be noticeably better this week with his return.
Georgia has three games remaining against Top 25 teams:
- September 7: South Carolina
- September 28: LSU
- November 10: Florida in Jacksonville
Although all three teams may prove to be elite, none has a reputation for scoring quite like the Clemson Tigers. So, Georgia’s presumably improving defense should be able to take some pressure off Aaron Murray and the offense.
Additionally, two of these three games are at home while one is at a neutral site. Many of Georgia’s offensive woes on Saturday came as a result of the hostile environment. That won’t be a factor in these games.
The South Carolina game this weekend is Georgia’s most important game, more important than Clemson because it is a conference game. It’s more important than LSU because it’s a divisional game. It’s more important than Florida, because South Carolina has fewer roadblocks to win the East than the Gators.
Even before the season began, South Carolina was the most important game. A win over the Gamecocks will go a long way in establishing Georgia as the leader in the SEC East.
Wins over both South Carolina and Florida would all but guarantee the Bulldogs a return to Atlanta for the SEC Championship Game.
The Luxury Wins
If Georgia wants to make a trip to Pasadena, however, simply winning the SEC East and sneaking by the winner of the West may not suffice. Georgia will need a victory over LSU as a résumé builder. A three-point loss on the road in Week 1 could be covered by Top 25 wins against two SEC East rivals and a perennial SEC West power like LSU.
And, if Georgia can be impressive in victories over the likes of Missouri, Tennessee, Vanderbilt, Kentucky and Georgia Tech, poll voters and computers alike may grow fond of the Bulldogs.
If Georgia can win out against a respectable SEC schedule, the Bulldogs should be in good shape.
Still, a little help from other teams would prove beneficial. It is in Georgia's best interest for the winner of the SEC West to go undefeated. This isolates that team as Georgia's leading competition in the SEC and sets up a theoretical win in the SEC Championship Game that would carry a lot of weight heading into bowl season.
An SEC team with one loss would likely edge out an undefeated Ohio State or Louisville team by virtue of a more difficult schedule, but Georgia still needs to worry about a few teams from tougher conferences–namely the Pac-12.
Fortunately, Oregon and Stanford (the presumed best teams in that conference) play each other on November 7th, so only one of those teams could potentially go 13-0.
If the Bulldogs do finish 12-1 as SEC champions, precedent says that they will most likely be in the BCS National Championship game. But there is one more wild card to keep an eye on: the Clemson Tigers. If Clemson were to be undefeated as ACC champs, there may be push back from voters who oppose another rematch of a regular-season game in the national championship.
Can It Be Done?
South Carolina, LSU and Florida may all be as good as Clemson, but none of them is a worse matchup for Georgia. If Georgia’s defense improves week to week while the offense limits turnovers, this team still has a tremendous upside.
It may seem foolish for Bulldog fans who are still reeling from a crushing defeat to even dream about the national championship game, but consider the past two seasons.
In 2011, Georgia opened 0-2 before winning 10 consecutive games and marching to the Georgia Dome for the conference title game.
Last year, Georgia suffered an embarrassing 35-7 October loss to the Gamecocks in Columbia, S.C. The Bulldogs rallied to win the SEC East and came up a few yards shy of defeating Alabama in the conference title game.
For Bulldog fans, Saturday night’s loss hurts, but it is important to remember why it hurts. Even with several mental errors and botched plays, Georgia nearly defeated an great team on the road. The loss hurt because fans saw flashes of Georgia’s potential.
That wasn’t the case in 2011 when Boise State made the Bulldogs look completely lost. That wasn’t the case in 2012 when South Carolina rendered Georgia ineffective in every phase of the game.
A win against Clemson would have been nice in establishing momentum for Georgia early. But the Bulldogs can still catch up. A win against South Carolina would be the first step on that path.