ATHENS — The Dawg Days are brightening up.
Aron White notices the difference when he goes to class, or surfs the Internet, or heads out to dinner.
"There's a completely different atmosphere when you live in Athens," the Georgia tight end said. "It definitely makes you feel a whole lot better."
The Bulldogs have revived their season with five straight wins, actually looking like — gasp! — the favorite in the Southeastern Conference's Eastern Division. Defending champ and preseason favorite South Carolina has lost both its quarterback and top running back. Perennial power Florida is also down a quarterback and appears to be in rebuilding mode under first-year coach Will Muschamp.
No. 24 Georgia (5-2, 3-1 SEC), which is off this week, has bounced back from losses to Boise State and South Carolina at the start of the season, taking advantage of a favorable schedule to claw its way back into The Associated Press rankings.
But there's no celebration between the hedges. Not yet anyway. Everyone knows the success of this season will be determined in the final month, when the Bulldogs face a gauntlet that includes Florida, No. 19 Auburn and No. 20 Georgia Tech.
"To some degree, we've still not earned that respect," White said. "That's something we're still striving for. We've just got to continue to try to sway people's opinions until the end of the season and hopefully win out."
If Georgia win its final five games — New Mexico State and Kentucky are the other contests, and the Bulldogs will be big favorites in those — then a trip to the SEC championship game looks highly probable. South Carolina, which is tied with Georgia for the division lead, next travels to Tennessee on Oct. 29, has a daunting trip to No. 10 Arkansas the following week and also must face Florida.
The Gators have lost three straight conference games, but they could be a different team by the time they travel to Jacksonville for the annual showdown with Georgia a week from Saturday. Injured quarterback John Brantley is off crutches and into a walking boot, and Florida hopes to have him back against the Bulldogs.
Georgia sure hasn't minded watching Florida take a tumble with Brantley on the sideline, or seeing South Carolina go through its own troubles. Quarterback Stephen Garcia was finally kicked off the team for good, and star runner Marcus Lattimore is out for the season after sustaining a serious knee injury.
"I definitely feel like the stars are aligning for us," White said. "You never want to see anybody get hurt. It's really sad when good players go down. At the same time, you can't be mad if it improves our chances."
Coach Mark Richt isn't counting the Gamecocks out, especially since South Carolina holds a tiebreaker edge over Georgia.
"We absolutely have to keep winning, I know that, and somebody has to beat South Carolina," he said. "It's hard to lose a player such as a quarterback or a player like Lattimore, one of the greatest players in America. But it doesn't mean you still can't win."
Georgia is one of the few SEC teams that hasn't gone through some sort of quarterback change or rotation, benefiting from another steady season by third-year sophomore Aaron Murray. Freshman Isaiah Crowell has made an immediate impact (fourth in the SEC with 608 yards) and appears set to join the long line of great running backs who've played for the Bulldogs. The defense has tightened up in its second year under coordinator Todd Grantham, adjusting to his 3-4 alignment and allowing just 273 yards per game (down from 328.5 last season).
The big thing is: Everyone stuck together after that discouraging start.
"Coach Richt was like, 'We're starting a new season. We're going 10-0,'" White recalled. "We definitely have a lot of high expectations for ourselves and feel like we want to control our destiny as much as possible. The way we do that is continue to handle business on our end. We can't cloud our thoughts worrying about what South Carolina is doing or if Florida is winning. At the end of the day, none of that will matter if we don't go out and win."
The Bulldogs have taken advantage of the easiest part of their schedule, beating Coastal Carolina and Mississippi, Mississippi State, Tennessee and Vanderbilt. By a quirk of the rotation, they won't have to face any of the beasts from the West — No. 1 LSU, No. 2 Alabama nor No. 10 Arkansas — unless they make the SEC title game in Atlanta the first Saturday of December.
If Georgia makes it that far, Richt's future will probably be secure for at least another year. No coach was under more pressure after the Bulldogs slipped to 6-7 a year ago — their first losing season since 1996 — and got off to that discouraging start this year. He's not off the hot seat yet, especially if he loses again to longtime nemesis Florida. Richt has beaten the Gators only twice in his decade as the Bulldogs' coach.
But at least the speculation about his future has eased off a bit. That, in turn, has lifted a weight off the players.
"It is a distraction," White conceded. "As much as we tuned it out and as well as we handled it, it's always a distraction when the media is talking about it and people are asking you about it 24-7. It's good that we have quelled that a little bit, put it on the backburner where there's not as many people talking about it. We can focus that much more when you take away the distractions of everyday life."
The comeback portion of the season has not been entirely smooth. Crowell is bothered by a wrist injury. Defensive starters Kwame Geathers and Shawn Williams will have to sit out the first half against Florida, punished by the SEC for incidents against the Commodores. And Grantham — who already showed poor judgment when he flashed a choke sign as Florida lined up for a winning field goal in 2010 — was embroiled in a heated confrontation with Vandy coach James Franklin after the last game.
Still, that's an improvement over the first couple of weeks.
"We've got a chance to do something special," Crowell said. "We've got to take advantage of it."