ATHENS -When Georgia trudged to the locker room, trailing at halftime by 31 points, there were plenty of dour faces.
Coach Mark Richt brought up his favorite mantra, "Finish the drill" - three words that have been emblazoned on T-shirts and seemingly painted on every bare wall around campus. In a situation in which the words could have rung hollow, the Bulldogs suspended reality long enough to believe they really did have a chance.
"No one thought it was over," running back Knowshon Moreno said. "No one hung their heads. We kept on fighting until the end."
It was over, of course. A 31-point lead is just too much to overcome against a team such as Alabama.
But Georgia may have brushed up on a valuable lesson that miserable night between the hedges. One loss - not even one as decisive as a 41-30 setback to the Crimson Tide - necessarily knocks a team out of the national championship race.
Heck, LSU finished No. 1 nine short months ago with TWO defeats on its record.
"It's just the beginning of the season," Moreno said. "We saw it last year. Anything can happen. This is definitely not the downfall ... We're going to bounce back."
The Bulldogs (4-1, 1-1 Southeastern Conference) were off this weekend, a fortuitous bit of scheduling that gave them a chance to get healthy - several key players were nursing injuries, Moreno among them - and wipe away memories of that miserable first half against Alabama.
A season that began with such promise is not over yet.
They've just got to finish the drill.
"I would be surprised if somebody makes it through unscathed," Richt said. "If they do, more power to ‘em. But there's a good chance everybody is going to get hit before it's over."
Now, for the bad news: There's no denying the first month of the season failed to meet Georgia's lofty expectations.
The Bulldogs ran out for the opener ranked No. 1 in the nation, a powerhouse of a team that seemingly had everything in place for a run at its first national title since the Herschel Walker era. A veteran quarterback in Matthew Stafford. A star running back in Moreno. The next coming of Randy Moss in freshman receiver A.J. Green. An aggressive, swarming defense led by tackling machine Rennie Curran.
Nearly everyone was back from a team that won its final seven games of 2007, claimed a spot in the Sugar Bowl and finished No. 2 behind LSU in the rankings.
But the group that looked unbeatable in wins over Florida, Auburn and Hawaii has yet to hit its stride this season. The first two games - easy victories over Georgia Southern and Central Michigan - didn't prove much of anything. A sluggish 14-7 triumph at South Carolina raised some nagging questions that not even a win at Arizona State totally erased.
Then came Alabama. The Bulldogs trailed 31-0 by halftime, their biggest deficit of Richt's eight-year tenure. They showed some spunk to get within 31-17 early in the fourth quarter, but the Crimson Tide put it away with a field goal and touchdown. Georgia scored a couple of late TDs, but those were more about pride than affecting the game's outcome.
Georgia, which was No. 3 going into the game, slipped to 11th in the latest Associated Press rankings, a long way from its lofty place in the preseason.
"That's about right," Richt conceded. "We certainly battled our tails off and a made a little game of it in the fourth quarter. But they took care of business. Where we are sitting is very fair right now."
The Bulldogs can take comfort from their own experience. They lost twice in the first half of 2007, the second of those setbacks a disheartening defeat at Tennessee in which they trailed 28-0 at the half and basically gave up over the final two quarters. Then after barely winning at Vanderbilt, Georgia suddenly looked unbeatable. There was a 42-30 win over defending national champion Florida, a 45-20 romp against Auburn and, finally, a 41-10 rout of unbeaten Hawaii in the Sugar Bowl. To get on a similar roll, the Bulldogs have some areas to shore up during the off week.
Start with the penalties. Georgia is the most flagged team in the SEC, getting caught an average of 10 times for 87 yards a game. The Bulldogs got away with their sloppy, overaggressive play in the first four contests, but it cost them dearly against the Crimson Tide.
A roughing-the-passer penalty on Alabama's very first possession wiped away a fumble that went Georgia's way, and the Tide punched it in for a 7-0 lead. ‘Bama scored again on its next drive with help from another late hit on the quarterback.
"There's been at least 10 penalties every game," Richt moaned. "I've got to send a stronger message than I've been sending to this point. That's my No. 1 priority right now."
Alabama also dominated both sides in the line-of-scrimmage battle, exposing two more of Georgia's weak links.
The Bulldogs took a big hit in the preseason when left tackle Trinton Sturdivant went down with a season-ending injury, and they've been juggling the lineup ever since trying to come up with a cohesive unit. No matter who's on the field, it's an inexperienced group that was badly exposed by the Crimson Tide.
"They had a real good defensive front, probably one of the better ones we've seen," sophomore lineman Clint Boling said. "But that's the kind of defensive fronts you're going to face in the SEC. If we want to keep winning and do what we want to finish our goals, we better get used to seeing fronts like that."
Turning to their own defensive front, the Bulldogs are still struggling to find a replacement for departed end Marcus Howard, their 2007 sack leader. They already tried five different starters at the two outside spots, none of them getting much heat on the opposing QB.
Also working against Georgia getting back to No. 1: A brutal schedule the rest of the way, including road trips to third-ranked LSU and 13th-ranked Auburn, not to mention the annual game in Jacksonville against No. 12 Florida.
At least time is on their side.
"We've done it before," linebacker Darryl Gamble said.
"It's just a minor setback. We still have our goals set.