Monday, September 6
Make a firm decision, it's time to go.
Since 2003, Georgia has alternated between opening its seasons with marquee matchups against legit contenders and opening with tune-ups against mid-major or I-AA scrubs. This being an even-numbered year, it was time to go the latter route -- which was good in the sense that we were coming into 2010 with enough major question marks that a tune-up game would be worthwhile, yet bad in that no matter how good we looked in this area or that area against Louisiana-Lafayette, there'd only be so many conclusions we could draw because it was, you know, Louisiana-Lafayette.
In spite of that, it seems like it's been a long time since I've seen Bulldog Nation leaving Sanford Stadium as collectively pumped as they appeared to be Saturday afternoon. I've become accustomed -- as, I'm sure, have many of you -- to seeing Georgia dispatch these early-season gimme games methodically but with little to no flair whatsoever, spending the first 10 minutes or so screwing around and missing out on big scoring opportunities by tripping over their own feet, then spending the final quarter (or two) standing by passively as the opponent makes the final score look closer than it actually was by launching some big scoring plays past a squad of less-than-focused third-stringers. Saturday, though, was a revelation, or as close to one as you can get when you're playing a Sun Belt team. Almost from the opening gun -- I say "almost" because, yeah, when ULL's kick returner brought the opening kickoff back to within spitting distance of midfield, I did briefly have paranoid visions of Jon Fabris lurking on the sideline -- we grabbed the Ragin' Cajuns by the throat and held on for the full 60 minutes, something I'm not accustomed to seeing us do even when we're supposed to be practically invincible. With numerous major question marks swirling around the team, we still managed to open a make-or-break season with the biggest margin of victory the Dawgs have enjoyed in the entire Mark Richt era. Sun Belt team or no Sun Belt team, I won't begrudge Bulldog Nation any excitement over that.
Question mark number one was Aaron Murray, who looked damned impressive out there, miles ahead of the kid who looked like he hadn't quite put it all together in the G-Day game back in April. If anything, Murray sometimes looked too confident -- that touchdown scramble to end the first half was the kind of luck you can reasonably expect to get against UL-Lafayette; pretty sure you can't expect to get it against, say, South Carolina -- but if you give me the choice between a kid who wants to make plays and a kid who just wants to take what the defense will give him and then get the hell off the field, you know I'll take the first guy every time. Murray may have relied on his legs a little too much, but I'll say this for him, he looked awfully good throwing on the run with that light-speed release of his. And while he may have made some questionable decisions with his legs, he didn't make many with his arm: There was only one pass all afternoon about which I found myself muttering, "Ooh, dude, you really shouldn't have thrown that," and it was the pass to the back of the end zone that the Lafayette DB should've intercepted but instead dropped. (Supposedly Murray was trying to throw the ball away by launching it past the end zone; I'm confident that either Richt or Mike Bobo was quick to inform him that that's what sidelines are for, son.) Murray's one pick, meanwhile, was a beautiful laser beam to an in-stride Kris Durham that took an extremely unlucky bounce off Durham's sternum and into the hands of his defender. If what we saw on Saturday was the kind of decision-making we can expect from Murray over the course of the season, then no disrespect to Matt Stafford, but it's looking like Murray's learning curve at the QB position might be a lot closer to David Greene's than Staff's.
And then there was the defense. I didn't think we'd be giving up 30-something points to the Cajuns, even in the very first outing of our shiny new 3-4 front, but I expected some initial sloppiness and mixed assignments by a bunch of guys still learning what their positions are meant to do. Clearly, that never happened, and if a mysterious Mephistopheles-like figure had approached me before the game and said, "How would you like for your defense to pitch an effective shutout, holding their opponent to just five first downs and 128 total yards," I would've asked him which body parts of mine he wanted in return. Granted, I'm a mere novice when it comes to Xs and Os and I certainly don't know the ins and outs of Todd Grantham's defensive playbook, but it sure looked like our guys knew where they were supposed to be and whom they were supposed to be tackling 99 percent of the time, and they attacked the Cajuns with an aggressiveness that, after years of tentativeness under Willie Martinez, was downright refreshing.
And then there was the play that put the "effective" condition before "shutout" in the above paragraph, the busted coverage that let ULL's Ladarius Green get behind Bacarri Rambo for a 60-yard touchdown reception. From what I've heard, that play was the product of some weird circumstances -- it was the Cajuns' first play after that fluky interception by Murray, and in the Georgia defense's frantic efforts to replace the offense on the field and get situated, some critical communication was lost and Bacarri got burned on the throw. The last person on the field to make any excuses about it, though, was Todd Grantham, who read his entire secondary the riot act on the sideline (and supposedly followed it up with a second mini-rant just for good measure). I'm not the kind of guy who's given to applauding tornadic sideline bluster for its own sake -- you know who else became famous for his red-faced tirades in his players' faces? Ron Zook -- but that said, I had to ask myself, when was the last time a Georgia defender made an egregiously bad decision and was openly held accountable for it by the defensive coordinator? Can't say exactly, but I'm pretty sure the last guy I recall doing that was Brian VanGorder. And if Grantham's intensity on the sideline is a necessary ingredient in the formula that takes us back to those days and away from the meek passivity of the Willie Martinez era, then all I can say is rant away, coach.
Now then, sooner or later we're going to have to return to the obvious question: How much of this can we really translate into something meaningful for the South Carolina game? At the end of the day, we all know the answer is "probably not a whole lot." Lafayette had a modest-at-best running game behind a fairly rickety offensive line, which the Gamecocks will not, if their Thursday-night rout of Southern Miss is any indication. And whatever else we know or don't know about South Carolina, we know their defense is going to make life a hell of a lot more difficult for Aaron Murray than ULL did (last year's bizarre shootout notwithstanding). This game was a confidence-builder; it was not an automatic indicator that the Dawgs have amassed the horses for an SEC title run, and don't let anyone tell you otherwise.
As confidence-builders go, though, it was pretty invigorating to watch. In the kind of game where we'd normally just be happy to not put in a half-assed performance and maybe come kinda, sorta close to covering the spread, we dropped a double-nickel on the opponent and, just for good measure, did it with nearly a starting lineup's worth of skill-position talent standing on the sideline. We've got 11/12 of a season remaining to figure out whether this game was a harbinger or a mirage, but for one afternoon, at least, the Dawgs were pointed squarely in the right direction.
And for one afternoon, I got to enjoy a heavenly day of tailgating with the Tent City crowd, surrounded by charcoal smoke, hot coeds, and sunshine. OK, maybe a little too much sunshine, as the rosy pink sunburn on the left side of my face will attest. (It's always awesome when the sunburn is only on one side of your face, isn't it? That's never embarrassing. It's just a shame this didn't happen six or seven weeks later, I could be going as Two-Face for Halloween.) But I got to enjoy football -- real, live actual football as a gainfully employed person surrounded by cherished friends -- and was reminded once again what it feels like to be truly blessed. I can only hope that all of you were afforded the same.
· Be honest -- Saturday morning, how many of you thought you'd be ending the day thinking, "Boy, I'm really glad we've got our offense and not Florida's"? Now, I know a lot of people are going to be tempted to chalk it up to possible first-game jitters on the part of John Brantley or "Well, we always knew they were going to miss Tim Tebow" or something like that. But the thing is, Brantley didn't have a terrible game (17-of-25, only 113 yards, but two TDs and no picks) -- when he wasn't having to chase bad snaps 10 or 20 yards down the field. I mean, they've had six months to fine-tune the center-QB exchange, which I think we can all agree is a pretty basic aspect of the game, and that's the best they could do? Give them back all the yardage they lost on bad snaps and fumbles and they still would've only amassed 305 total yards for the game, nearly a quarter of which came on Jeff Demps' 72-yard TD scamper late in the game -- one of only two Florida scoring drives that went longer than 30 yards. Which tells me that the guy they're really missing right now is not Tebow but rather Dan Mullen -- and that, if you ask me, is the worse position to be in.
· Of course, whatever glee I felt at watching the Gators' offensive Keystone Koppery was balanced out to some degree by seeing how good South Carolina looked Thursday night. Now, that performance probably deserves as many caveats as ours does, the two biggest being 1) Southern Miss' defense has turned into only a shadow of what it was under Jeff Bower and 2) the eye-opening plays by Carolina's skill-position players disguised what was mostly an average performance by their offensive line. Of course, "average" still handily beats what that unit has been managing for the past three or four seasons, so if Spurrier has finally unlocked the code for a halfway decent line, the Gamecocks could, in fact, be very, very good this year. But if that's the case, I hope we won't be able to make the definitive judgment until long after this Saturday.
· Well, getting the NCAA to reverse their decision on Jeremiah Masoli's eligibility sure did Ole Miss a heap of good, didn't it? Maybe Houston Nutt would've been better served scavenging some defensive players away from Oregon instead.
· Which reminds me: The NCAA had time this past week to rule and re-rule on Masoli, but they couldn't carve some time out of their busy schedule to tell A.J. Green he could play? Seriously, NCAA, fuck you guys.
· The three teams I've seemed to be more down on than the rest of the punditocracy as a whole are USC, Texas, and LSU, and after one weekend I can't say I'm inclined to take a rosier attitude toward any of them. For a team that usually unloads 50-something points on Conference USA opponents without breaking a sweat, Texas took a suspiciously long time putting Rice squarely in their rearview mirror, and while they may have rolled up nearly 200 rushing yards on the Owls, the fact that they needed 46 carries to do so tells me that their running game still isn't what they'd like it to be. As for USC, well, seven out of eight WAC opponents managed not to let Hawaii get to 36 points last season -- so congratulations, Kiffin & Kiffin, on fielding a defense that's better than Utah State's. That and two bucks will get you a grande coffee at Starbucks these days (and an invitation to face Nevada in the Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl -- whenever you're eligible again, of course).
· As for LSU, I know I said last week that the Chick-fil-A Kickoff might end up being a lifeboat for the winning coach, but after seeing the Tigers' performance in that game, I'm still not certain that LSU is gonna be good enough to save Les Miles's job this year. The game was a thriller, all right, but do not let it go unnoticed that LSU got shut out in the second half (and only managed 313 yards total) against a UNC team whose defense was straight-up decimated by suspensions, or that the Tiger defense got 412 yards hung on it by a quarterback, T.J. Yates, who directed Division I-A's 102nd-ranked passing attack last year. Honestly, I think the UNC fans may have more reason to come out of that game feeling happy: They came within a few yards of upsetting a ranked SEC team despite having the week from hell leading up to the game, and they might even have an offense this year, assuming even more of them aren't dragged down into NCAA purgatory. As for Les Miles, he might have to hope that seven wins and a meh bowl bid clear the bar for job retention, 'cause it may not get much better than that for his team.
· I don't even want to talk about UAB. Led nearly the whole game, had the winning score right in their hands thanks to an incredible 50-yard run in the final minute by QB David "Black Tebow II" Isabelle . . . and then the easily makeable FG gets blocked. OK, I know I said I wasn't going to talk about it. But anyway, it looks like my prediction of the Blazers going back to a bowl this year might require some revision. Still think it could happen, but I'm kinda glad I didn't put any money on it.