Cumberland Times-News

Local Sports

September 24, 2013

Georgia faces final test in opening-month gauntlet

ATHENS, Ga. — Aaron Murray can’t imagine any school going through the sort of gauntlet Georgia has faced in the opening month of the season.

“We’re probably the only team in history to start off with three top 10 teams in the first four games,” the Bulldogs’ senior quarterback said Tuesday.

Well, that’s a bit of an exaggeration.

Three other teams in the BCS era, which dates to 1998, have faced a similar challenge at the start of the season.

But that doesn’t lessen the significance of what No. 9 Georgia will be trying to accomplish on Saturday when it hosts sixth-ranked LSU in another huge Southeastern Conference game between the hedges.

If the Bulldogs can knock off the Tigers — and escape September with a 3-1 record — they’ll likely be a serious national championship contender come late November.

“We definitely control our own fate,” linebacker Jordan Jenkins said. “If we beat LSU ... that would boost us up in the polls. People would favor us more and realize we’re still a title-worthy team.”

According to STATS, Georgia is only the fourth team in the last 16 seasons to faced such a daunting schedule at the beginning of the season. The others were North Carolina in 2001, and both Arizona and Tulsa in 2011.

The Tar Heels went 1-2 against their top 10 opponents; Arizona and Tulsa both dropped all three games.

Georgia is looking to win two of three, having lost at then-No. 9 Clemson 38-35 in the season opener (the Tigers have since climbed to No. 3) before knocking off South Carolina 41-30 at home when the Gamecocks were ranked sixth.

“Everybody says, ‘Oh man, that must stink.’ But I think it’s fun. I think everybody on this teams thinks it’s fun.” Murray said. “It’s fun preparing for these big type of games. It’s fun playing in them. It adds a lot more excitement to the week.”

Actually, at least one of Murray’s teammates favored a bit of an easier schedule, at least at the beginning when the Bulldogs were breaking in so many new players on the defensive side.

“I would’ve preferred a top 10 team in the second or third game,” Jenkins said. “Definitely not the first AND second games. That’s definitely something that’s hard to do. I don’t think many teams would’ve come out with even one win with the schedule we’ve had so far this year.”

After LSU (4-0), though, the schedule takes a big turn in Georgia’s favor.

No. 20 Florida is the only team among the last eight regular-season opponents currently ranked in The Associated Press poll, and the Gators are hardly in a good place after losing quarterback Jeff Driskel to a season-ending injury last weekend.

Not that the Bulldogs are getting ahead of themselves, but the Tigers look like the last major stumbling block for a team that came oh-so-close to reaching the BCS title game last season.

“If you have a chance to win the SEC, you pretty much know every game has national championship implications,” tight end Arthur Lynch said. “First and foremost, the goal is to win the SEC East. We’ve been SEC East champions twice. We’ve been in the SEC championship game the last two years, but haven’t had a chance to win. The next goal is to make that step. Whatever comes after that is gravy.”

It will be interesting to see how much progress Georgia’s young defense has made over the opening month, facing an LSU team that has shown much more balance with new offensive coordinator Cam Cameron calling the plays and former Georgia quarterback Zach Mettenberger playing with plenty of poise and confidence.

With three freshmen starters, the Bulldogs struggled to stop Clemson and South Carolina, though they did make a huge goal-line stand to preserve the victory over the Gamecocks. Last week’s victory against North Texas — which Georgia dominated statistically but didn’t put away until the fourth quarter — was more about gaining much-needed experience than making any true reading on how much the youngsters have improved.

Murray said he’s noticed plenty of positive signs on the practice field.

“As a whole, this team has grown over these past three or four weeks — especially on the defensive side of the ball,” the quarterback said. “I’ve really been impressed to see how those guys have gotten better and better every week. I look forward to them getting even better this weekend.”

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