Losing to South Carolina is never an enjoyable experience, and I've already read a ton of comments from fellow Dawg fans professing high levels of anxiety about what this latest loss to the 'Cocks says about our team. At the risk of sounding apathetic or committing "treason by omission," I'm honestly not nearly as worked up about this loss as I thought I'd be, and that might be because -- at the risk of committing treason, period -- in plotting out how I thought this season would go for Georgia, I kind of figured we'd lose this game from the beginning. Newly revamped defense, freshman QB making his first-ever start in an SEC game on the road -- not a formula for victory, much less an easy one. Particularly if the wealth of experience on Carolina's side finally translated into actual execution on the field, which it looks like it might actually do this year.
So we lost, and it was ugly at times -- you don't ever get to be happy about only scoring six points on someone, unless you're North Dakota State, I guess. But if all you're paying attention to is the number 6 on the scoreboard, you don't seem to have paid a lot of attention to Aaron Murray's performance in his first-ever SEC start, which I'd call one of the most impressive ever by a frosh quarterback under Richt's tutelage. No, actually the most impressive -- feast eyes:
(vs. SC, 2001)
(@ SC, 2006*)
(@ SC, 2010)
Hell, even D.J. Shockley didn't have that good a day against the Gamecocks, and he was a fifth-year senior who'd just suckerpunched a nationally ranked Boise State team. So let's not spend too much time grousing about how rickety the offense looked, considering that A.J. Green was out and Murray still managed not to do anything monstrously stupid, even in a stadium that's as loud as anyplace he'll have to go all season. If anything, the offense would've looked better had the coaches taken the restrictor plate off Murray much earlier in the game -- in the first half he only threw eight passes, completing four of them for 32 yards, but in the second he was 10-of-13 for 160, against a Gamecock secondary that was back at full strength with the return of Chris Culliver. And it wasn't just the passes Murray threw but the way he carried himself under center -- staying calm, not making dumb decisions, and directing the offense like he'd been doing that shit for years. I fully realize that I'll likely get laughed out of the blogosphere for calling him "Manningesque," but I'd be lying if I said that wasn't the first word that popped into my head. I'm just as hesitant to make a sweeping statement along the lines of "I'm officially not worried about our freshman quarterback anymore," but . . . I'd be lying if I said I wasn't awful close.
Now then, let's talk about the defense. Yes, it was . . . aggravating, to put it mildly. Here's what I don't get: How could we be so good at wrapping up Stephen Garcia -- whom we sacked five times -- and so bad at wrapping up Marcus Lattimore, who went off for 182 yards on 37 carries? This will puzzle me for quite a while, and if y'all have any enlightening explanations to suggest, by all means, the comment thread is open. I will say this: In both QB pressure and run-blocking, our defenders were at least in the spots they were supposed to be, so the transition to the 3-4 front -- maybe the biggest and most indigestion-inducing worry of Bulldog Nation coming into this season -- appears to be going well enough. It's the fundamentals, weirdly, which seem to still be lacking. Is a team that's picked up the 3-4 just fine but tackles like a middling C-USA squad more worrisome than a team that tackles beautifully but always seems to be doing so after an 8- or 9-yard gain because they didn't know what the hell their assignment was? And of the two problems, which is the easier fix?
Maybe this is a case of Todd Grantham, lord love his red-faced screaming little self, realizing that this team was far more lacking in the fundamentals than he thought. Maybe it's also a case of South Carolina finally having a more dynamic talent at running back than they've had in three decades. Neither one will help me sleep particularly well tonight, I have to say.
But I'm not prepared to write off this season yet, either. If I'd done that the last time we lost to South Carolina, I'd have missed us playing in the Sugar Bowl. Which is not meant as a declaration that I think we're headed there again this year (news flash: we're not), but consider that maybe some of us got our expectations too inflated after the dominating win over Louisiana-Lafayette, and now they're being reeled back in. Aaron Murray appears to be as good as advertised by that first game, the defense probably isn't, but at least there's time to work on it. As pissed as I was to see our tacklers bouncing off the ball-carriers almost as badly as they did against Georgia Tech in '08, we're at least seeing that stuff at the beginning of the season rather than the very end, which means there's time to fix it before our hopes get irrevocably dashed.
Whatever else you can say about Todd Grantham, he seems like the kind of guy who's a lot more committed to fixing glaring problems like that than just sitting there and hoping things clean themselves up on their own. And you can't deny that he's already effected some improvement: Last year we gave up 29 offensive points and 427 yards to the 'Cocks (at home). This year we gave up 17 points and 75 fewer yards (on the road) to a Carolina team that's arguably quite a bit better than last year's, for reasons that don't begin and end with Marcus Lattimore.
So yeah, I'm frustrated, but I'm not hanging my head in shame. Are we an SEC-championship-caliber team now? No, but I didn't come into this season thinking we were, either. Instead of arbitrarily overloading this team with our own expectations, maybe it's time to treat them as a blank slate or empty vessel that will get filled as the season progresses. Either way, it's far too early to presume that the team has no hope of improving; we've got 10 games left and the pieces to win most of them, so it's time to settle down and figure out how to do that.
Look at it this way: We came into the season with two big worries -- that the QB would be a deer in the headlights, and that the defense would stink -- and we're awful close to being able to put one of those to rest. So now we'll work on the other one, power through the growing pains, and see what happens. Maybe I'm being naive, but I am not terrified about watching this process unfold. There have been times over the last few seasons when I would've been happy for the season to just be freaking over already, but at this point I'm kind of jonesing for the next opportunity to get out there and watch this team get better.
· If you want to feel better, you need look no further than our in-state rivals, whose own transition to the 3-4 has gone . . . well, perhaps not swimmingly, at least so far. In case you wanted it spelled out in black and white -- and if you're a Dawg fan, here's guessing you did -- the Techies allowed 319 yards and 28 points to a team that had managed only 293 and 3, respectively, against D-IAA North Dakota State the week before. Count your blessings, folks.
· Hell, just feel glad you're not an ACC team, period: The presumptive conference champion, Virginia Tech, became the latest victim of the rapidly spreading lose-to-an-FCS-team virus; Florida State got destroyed by an Oklahoma team that was sweating Utah State until the very end the previous week; Miami scored 10 offensive points against Ohio State in the 'Shoe; N.C. State had to squeak past UCF. If you think about it, the most impressive performance put up by any team this past week was poor maligned Virginia pushing USC to the brink in the Trojans' own house. Four ACC teams in the top 25 coming into this past weekend, and all lost in fairly soul-crushing fashion. Particularly with UNC poised to receive a crushing blow from the NCAA's Thor-hammer in the near future, it looks like the date for the ACC's ascension to superconference status remains "TBA."
· The other fallout from this weekend's ACC-wide failgasm, of course, is that we no longer have to worry about Boise State being taken seriously as a contender for the BCS title. All due respect to the Broncos, but seriously, guys, a team from the Colonial Athletic Association just beat VT worse than you did. And therein lies the tragedy of only having one or two respectable opponents on your schedule: Just like it's dangerous to put your entire retirement fund in one stock, you pin your entire championship résumé on one opponent and that opponent can sink you.
· I'm more worried about Florida than I was last week, but if you're still tied 7-7 with South Florida at halftime, let's just say you clearly haven't solved all your problems. Same goes for if Eastern Michigan rolled up more yards on Miami-Ohio on the road than you did at home.
· It's still too early to call Michigan resurrected, but it sure does look like they're finally on their way to executing the kind of offense Rich Rodriguez wanted from the very beginning. Denard Robinson is going to make some coaches fear for their job security over the next few seasons.
· Little Brother update: I think UAB's season is close to being a writeoff already -- good thing I didn't, you know, predict they'd go to a bowl this season or anything, heh -- but I'm sure you will be thrilled to know that Wofford opened Southern Conference play with a win over Charleston Southern. Thus begins the Terrier resurgence, folks. Get on board or get out of the way.