ATHENS — Georgia might be the most fortunate team in the nation.
Everyone concedes the 12th-ranked Bulldogs haven't played up to expectations, a situation that boiled over this week when senior safety Shawn Williams called out his defensive teammates for "playing too soft."
But Georgia (6-1, 4-1 Southeastern Conference) still finds itself in an enviable position: facing No. 3 Florida (7-0, 6-0) on Saturday with a chance to gain the inside track to the league championship game.
"That's the crazy thing about our league," safety Sanders Commings said Tuesday. "It doesn't matter who you lose to. All that matters is how many losses you have."
An extremely favorable schedule doesn't hurt, either.
Before the SEC expanded to 14 teams, the Bulldogs were set to face defending national champion Alabama this season. But the league changed its scheduling formula, giving each team an additional division game, so Georgia dropped the Crimson Tide in favor of Missouri.
What a favorable trade that was.
The Bulldogs have faced only one team with a winning record — No. 17 South Carolina — and lost that game by four touchdowns. The six teams Georgia has beaten have a combined record of 7-31 against top-division opponents.
That's not all. If the Bulldogs can knock off the Gators, it should be a cakewalk the rest of the way. The last four opponents are a cumulative 6-13 against Football Bowl Subdivision teams.
"Coming into the season, the main things that everybody saw were the talent we had coming back and the schedule we had," linebacker Christian Robinson conceded. "It lined up really well."
Even when matched against inferior teams, Georgia has rarely looked dominant. There were troubling signs on defense, especially, when the Bulldogs surrendered 23 points to lowly Buffalo in the season opener. Since then, they have struggled to closer-than-expected wins against Tennessee (51-44) and last week's nail-biter at Kentucky (29-24).
"We've been fortunate," linebacker Amarlo Herrera said. "We've been playing bad ball at a good time. We've been playing people that couldn't capitalize on us playing bad."
The only time the Bulldogs were matched against one of the country's better teams, they failed miserably. South Carolina romped to a 35-7 victory that was pretty much in the bag by the end of a 21-point first quarter. Georgia was dominated in total yards, 392-224, and only a meaningless touchdown with less than 2 minutes remaining kept it from being a shutout.
But before the Bulldogs played another game, they had reclaimed control of their own destiny. While Georgia was licking its wounds during an off week, South Carolina lost a tough one at LSU, 23-21. Then, finishing up a brutal three-game stretch, the Gamecocks were blown out 44-11 at Florida last Saturday afternoon before the Bulldogs even took the field at Kentucky.
"I feel like we've got a second opportunity to shock the world," receiver Marlon Brown said. "This time, we can't slip up."
If the Bulldogs don't start playing better on defense, they could be headed for another South Carolina-like debacle against the Gators. It's all so surprising, since defense was supposed to be the strength of this team — especially when two of its best players, linebacker Jarvis Jones and safety Bacarri Rambo, passed up a chance to enter the NFL draft.
For some reason, Georgia hasn't come close to matching its performance in 2011, ranking in the bottom half of the SEC rankings points allowed (eighth at 24.1 per game) and run defense (10th with a 167.9-yard average). Granted, there have been suspensions (Rambo and starting linebacker Alec Ogletree had to sit out the first four games) and injuries (Jones has missed two contests with a variety of ailments). Still, that doesn't fully explain giving up at least 20 points in every game but one.
No wonder Williams went off after practice Monday night, telling reporters the defense was "just not playing with the same attitude we were last year."
"I'm trying to see if I have to take somebody's helmet off and slap them and say, 'What's going on?'" Williams continued. "We're not playing with any emotion right now. Period."
Coach Mark Richt spoke with Williams on Tuesday and made it would have preferred those frustrations be aired behind closed doors. But it's hard to argue with what the player expressed.
"Shawn is just a real passionate guy. He loves Georgia. He loves his team. He wants us to play the best we possibly can play," Richt said. "That was more public than I would have liked. But I really don't think he meant any harm by it. His teammates know that. It's really not an issue."
Commings, in fact, said he was glad that Williams spoke before the Bulldogs faced their biggest game of the season.
"We're 6-1 but we're not satisfied," Commings said. "He wants us to be that top defense — shutting people out, smashing people in the mouth. That's what all of us want as a defense. But we haven't really done it this year."
They've got a chance at a do-over.
Talk about fortunate.