November 17, 2011
Back in October, Georgia coach Mark Richt warned reporters against assuming that his team — then riding a five-game winning streak — was the hot one going into the annual Cocktail Party showdown with Florida, which came limping in on the heels of three consecutive losses. Look more closely at who they played during their respective streaks, Richt said, and the Bulldogs and Gators might not look so different:
"I know they've lost the last three, but they've played three ranked teams, and two of them[Alabama and LSU] are dominating everybody that they play. I think there is a perception that Georgia is on a roll and Florida is struggling, but if you flip those schedules I'm not sure it wouldn't be a whole lot different story for us and for them as far as winning."
Georgia won that game, and has taken two more in the meantime to extend its streak to eight straight wins out of an 0-2 hole to start the season. With one more on Saturday, against hapless Kentucky (1-5 in SEC games, its only win coming against even more hapless Ole Miss), the Bulldogs will wrap up their first SEC East title since 2005, officially bury speculation about Richt's job and complete one of the most remarkable turnarounds of the season. Which makes this an even more opportune moment to drive home Richt's point: As much as Georgia's triumph from preliminary panic is due to perseverance and talent, it's also due to the shallowest grading curve the SEC has to offer.
Assuming a win over Kentucky, eight of UGA's nine wins will be over teams that go into the weekend at or below .500. The Bulldogs are the only team in the East that missed all three of the West Division heavies currently occupying the top six of every major poll — Alabama, Arkansas and LSU — with a 26-0 record against the rest of college football. They're the only team in the East besides Kentucky that drew both of the Mississippi schools currently occupying the West Division basement. Five of their six conference wins — over Ole Miss, Mississippi State, Tennessee, Vanderbilt and Florida — have come against teams that have already sealed losing conference records. Barring a Mississippi State upset at Arkansas this weekend, four of those five will finish 2-6 or worse.
The sixth win came last week against Auburn, dropping the Tigers to 4-3 in SEC play, with Alabama likely to bring them in at 4-4 on Nov. 26. If so, Georgia will be the first team ever to reach the SEC Championship Game without beating a single opponent ranked in the final regular season polls to get there.
That's a long way from the vaunted "SEC grind" that actually did wear down the competition: Florida had Alabama, LSU and Auburn in consecutive weeks in October, and Tennessee followed its loss to Georgia with back-to-back-to-back games against LSU, Alabama and South Carolina, with a brief reprieve (courtesy of Middle Tennessee State) before going to Arkansas. South Carolina managed to avoid the gauntlet — Alabama and LSU were conveniently absent from the Gamecocks' schedule, too — but when the smoke clears, the biggest difference between Georgia being in Atlanta instead of South Carolina is going to be that South Carolina's third cross-divisional game was against Arkansas, and Georgia's third cross-divisional game was against Ole Miss.
Not that anyone in red and black cares about any of this. If the Bulldogs beat Kentucky, they're the division champs, period, and that will give them a fair shot at quieting any and all doubts against an A-plus, BCS championship contender on Dec. 3. Hey, they've earned it. But whether or not they could have earned it under any other circumstances, the circumstances they actually faced are the most forgiving anyone is going to get again in this conference for a long time.