ATHENS — About this time a year ago, Georgia became a different team.
The group that lost at home to South Carolina, was blown out by Tennessee and barely beat Vanderbilt suddenly turned into a confident, unstoppable squad.
Can the Bulldogs turn it on again? Can they make another run at No. 1, the spot they held at the beginning of the season?
Coach Mark Richt knows his players have yet to put together a complete game, if there is such a thing. The first half of the season was marred by penalties, injuries to the offensive line and an ugly loss at home against Alabama.
But the No. 10 Bulldogs (5-1, 2-1 Southeastern Conference) have hardly been eliminated from the national championship race — not in this topsy-turvy season in which three or four top teams seem to lose every week. And three straight games against ranked opponents, beginning with Saturday’s homecoming contest vs. No. 22 Vanderbilt, provide plenty of opportunity to climb in the polls.
“It is something to talk to the team about, to say, ‘Look, we are 5-1 and right in the thick of this thing and still haven’t really played a truly complete game with turnovers and penalties and making plays when they present themselves,’” Richt said. “No one is going to play a perfect game, but we haven’t put it all together yet.”
Georgia knows how quickly things can change. Just look at what happened last season.
The Bulldogs lost two of their first six games and appeared on the verge of a crushing defeat at Vanderbilt. The Commodores squandered an early 10-0 lead, but were driving for the winning score when Darryl Gamble forced a fumble. Georgia took off the other way and kicked a field goal as time expired for a 20-17 victory.
Suddenly, the Bulldogs became a powerhouse.
They scored more than 40 points in each of the next three games, including a rare win over Florida.
They blew out unbeaten Hawaii in the Sugar Bowl to close the year on a seven-game winning streak, which pushed Georgia all the way to No. 2 in the final rankings.
Actually, this year’s team is better positioned to climb one spot higher. In 2007, those two early losses kept the Bulldogs from reaching the SEC championship game, effectively ending any hope of playing for the national title. They settled for the runner-up spot behind conference rival LSU.
There is one obvious area of concern: penalties. Georgia is the most flagged team in the country, getting caught more than 10 times a game for an average of 85.5 yards — 20 yards higher than anyone else in the SEC.
“The penalties are the most disappointing thing to me at this point,” Richt said. “We just need to get to the point where we don’t beat ourselves.”
The offensive line is also under the gun.
The Bulldogs lost their best blocker, left tackle Trinton Sturdivant, before the season even began. Kiante Tripp started the first three games before moving to tight end, another position plagued by injuries. Vince Vance took over for the last three, only to tear up his knee in Saturday’s 26-14 win over Tennessee.
Clint Boling filled in for Vance — his third different position on the line this season and likely to be where he stays. The Bulldogs are expected to start three freshmen and two sophomores up front against Vandy.
“We might be a little behind where we need to be because of all the stuff that’s holding us back, like penalties and injuries,” Gamble said. “We are close to where we need to be, but not right there at the moment.”
Of course, Georgia started last season with a lack of experience on the offensive line. All those youngsters seemed to mature about the same time, and that’s when the Bulldogs took off. Knowshon Moreno ripped off five straight games with at least 100 yards rushing, powering Georgia’s offensive outburst.
While Moreno has pulled off several spectacular moves this season (Remember him hurdling a Central Michigan defender? Soaring through the air to score against Arizona State?), he’s yet to have a real breakout performance. He’s averaging just under 100 yards a game, not quite what everyone expected from one of the best runners in the country.
Richt isn’t concerned.
“He is going to make people miss and break tackles,” the coach said. “I’ve seen him make some great 3-yard runs. I’ve seen him behind the line of scrimmage have to dodge a guy and spin to get 4 yards. Other times, the line gets him through that initial group, and he starts making people miss 5 or 6 yards down the field. He has run every bit as good as he has ever run.”
Quarterback Matthew Stafford also expects Moreno to put up better numbers the rest of the way.
“About this time last year is when he kind of burst on the scene and really started playing well,” Stafford said. “A lot of it has to do with the play of the offensive line.”
The Bulldogs can only hope for a repeat of ‘07.
“We’ve got a chance to keep getting better,” Stafford said. “That’s the main thing. Whether we explode this week or don’t, we’re just trying to iron things out and get better.”