Georgia’s not out of the woods yet, but the defense is (finally) on the right path

Georgia 20, Tennessee 12.
The psychic journey of Georgia fans over the last three years — a straight, downward-sloping line from No. 1 in the nation to start of 2008 to a losing record at the end of 2010 — has been too harrowing to allow them a sense of actual relief over one game, or even over four. But given where the Bulldogs were a month ago, on the heels of an 0-2 start at the hands of Boise State and South Carolina, it's impossible to ignore where they are tonight defensively.

As a team, Tennessee rolled up nine yards on the ground, with a long of eleven. SEC leader in passing yards, touchdowns, completion percentage and efficiency had completed barely half his passes (18 of 34) with no touchdowns and a passer rating of 115, his worst as a starter. When the Vols moved the ball in the first half, they were forced to settle for three field goal attempts that netted six points. On their first four possessions of the second half, they amassed five yards, four punts and a single first down. By the time Tennessee finally cracked the goal line, the clock showed barely three minutes to play in the fourth quarter and Bray was out of the game with a hand injury.

Even including that final desperate drive, Georgia held Tennessee 150 yards below its season average in total yards and gave up less than 300 total yards for the fourth week in a row, its longest streak since 2005. The defense will wake up Sunday ranked among the top ten nationally in yards allowed, where they haven't finished — where they haven't come close to finishing — since 2006. Short of discovering a hidden season of eligibility for David Pollack and Knowshon Moreno, there's literally nothing else they could do to quite so effectively bridge the gap to the first half of Richt's tenure: The Bulldogs finished in the top 15 nationally in both scoring and total defense three years in a row under coordinator Brian Van Gorder from 2002-04, and in the top 20 on both counts under successor Willie Martinez from 2005-07. Surprise: Those six seasons produced five outright or shared division titles, five top-10 finishes and two SEC championships.

Three seasons hence: With virtually identical numbers from the offense —scoring, yardage and pass efficiency averages from 2008-10 were slightly better than the averages from 2002-07 — the defense's steady descent into the middle of the pack left fans restless and Richt clinging to his job when it failed to show any demonstrable improvement last year under first-year coordinator Todd Grantham. The stagnation continued through the losses to Boise State and South Carolina, which combined for 80 points and just shy of 800 total yards.

Since, the Bulldogs have been virtually impenetrable, against progressively tougher tests: Coastal Carolina, Ole Miss, Mississippi State and now Tennessee have combined for a grand total of two offensive touchdowns. Vanderbilt — nearly a month removed from its last touchdown of any variety after being blanked at Alabama — isn't going to do much better next week. Based on the last two weeks, Florida may not do much better on Oct. 29. Four games into the SEC schedule, Georgia is 3-1 and one South Carolina loss away from controlling its own destiny in the East, with no Alabama, LSU or Arkansas waiting over the second half of the season. Again, I don't know if Georgia fans are allowing anything resembling "optimism" yet, with the Cocktail Party looming in two weeks like a kind of continental divide for the season. But as of tonight, yeah, I'm saying there's a chance.

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Matt Hinton is on Facebook and Twitter: Follow him @DrSaturday.

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