While the SEC West steals headlines, the Georgia Bulldogs are quietly positioning themselves for a run at their first SEC Championship since 2005.
The Dawgs may not receive the benefit of the doubt like resident powers Alabama and Auburn, and they certainly aren’t an inspirational Cinderella-like, fairy-tale-like Mississippi and Mississippi State, but head coach Mark Richt’s squad has flown under the radar to a 6-1 record and a 4-1 mark in conference play.
And for Georgia, there’s no reason to expect its existing formula for success to expire over the coming weeks. After all, a heavy dose of running and an ever-improving defense is hard to argue with—especially against one of the more manageable remaining schedules in the conference.
When junior running back Todd Gurley was suspended indefinitely before the Missouri game, fans assumed the worst about Georgia’s offense. Quarterback Hutson Mason and the Bulldogs passing game had been solid but hardly spectacular, and the fear was that the offense would stall out without its workhorse.
To the contrary, Gurley’s plight opened the door for a new star, true freshman Nick Chubb. Seth Emerson of The Macon Telegraph shared Chubb's stats thus far in comparison to Gurley's:
In two games as the starting tailback, Chubb has carried the football 68 times for 345 yards and three touchdowns. Most importantly, however, the Georgia offense has rolled on. Through seven games (all against FBS oppositions), Georgia is averaging more than 43 points per game.
But if “more of the same” has been the testimony of Georgia’s offense as of late, “less of the same” has been the rallying cry for the defense. And fewer old mistakes, broken plays and general mishaps is certainly a good look for coordinator Jeremy Pruitt’s defense. Coach Mark Richt expressed how pleased he was with the Bulldogs' first-half performance, courtesy of the Athens Banner-Herald's Marc Weiszer:
Arkansas put together several late-scoring drives on Saturday afternoon, but it was too little too late, thanks to a stellar effort in the first half by the Georgia defense.
And while Chubb’s steady onslaught of offensive production was hard to ignore, so was the Bulldogs defense, which held the Razorbacks to just six first-half points. Though perhaps that type of production should have been expected immediately following a road shutout against the Missouri Tigers.
In the SEC parity is king, and this year is exemplary of that concept. When chaos rules, however, consistency has a chance to prevail. The two constants for Georgia—an unaltered ability to run the football and continual improvements on the defensive side of the ball—could make the Bulldogs the surprise of the season’s second half.
All but written off following a road loss to the South Carolina Gamecocks in Week 3, this Georgia team could turn its lurking into hot pursuit over its final five games, four of which will come against currently unranked opposition.
With or without Gurley, it’s hard to deny the Bulldogs' path to the SEC Championship Game is relatively favorable. A rivalry game with Florida is never an easy calling, but an extra week to prepare as well as the Gators’ generally haphazard state should bode well for the Bulldogs.
Kentucky has impressed early, but the Wildcats seem unlikely to upset Georgia. And even the matchup with Auburn, the defending conference champion, could shake out favorably, thanks to home-field advantage for the Red and Black.
That remaining slate is decidedly more navigable than the road ahead for other SEC contenders. Mississippi State may have a No. 1 ranking, but it also has two remaining road games against Top 10 opponents (Alabama and Ole Miss).
Ole Miss still has a trip to LSU and a home game against Auburn on its schedule, not to mention the Egg Bowl. In addition to these games, Alabama and Auburn still have to play each other as well.
And in a year in which no one team has looked consistently dominant, the gauntlet among the top half of the SEC West could be crippling—not just to one team but to all of them.
So while Mississippi State, Ole Miss, Alabama and Auburn steal headlines and trade punches, don’t be surprised to see another team slowly working up the polls, racking up wins and improving upon its already fortified strengths. And don’t be stunned to see that team, the Georgia Bulldogs, sneak out as the top team in the conference.
Unless otherwise noted, all quotes obtained firsthand and all stats courtesy of Sports-Reference.com.