ATHENS — These are the dogs days at Georgia.
The offseason was filled with arrests. The star player has yet to suit up, banished to the sideline after the NCAA found out he sold his bowl jersey for $1,000. And most troubling to the faithful outside the hedges: The first 0-2 start in the Southeastern Conference since 1993, which means any hope of contending for a title this season is likely gone before the leaves change colors.
“It’s disappointing, it’s frustrating, whatever adjective you want to throw at it,” receiver Kris Durham said Tuesday. “When you come to a school like the University of Georgia, you come to win a championship.”
First, the Bulldogs need to win an SEC game. So far, they’ve been pounded into submission by No. 12 South Carolina’s running game, and been beaten through the air by No. 10 Arkansas’
Georgia (1-2 overall) heads to Mississippi State on Saturday night, facing an absolute must-win situation if it wants to retain any hope of salvaging this season. But the Bulldogs will again be without top receiver A.J. Green, who’s finishing out a four-game suspension for selling that aforementioned jersey.
“If we lose another game in the SEC, our chances of going to Atlanta (for the championship game) are very, very, very, very slim, if they’re possible at all,” quarterback Aaron Murray said. “I feel like if we win out and go 6-2 in the league, then we still have a chance. We’ve just got worry about ourselves and make sure we win every week.”
The Bulldogs did give themselves a glimmer of hope in last week’s 31-24 loss to Arkansas, rallying from a two-touchdown deficit in the fourth quarter.
Georgia actually had the ball again at midfield, needing maybe one more completion to set up an attempt at a game-winning field goal. But Murray was sacked, Arkansas got it back, and Ryan Mallett completed three straight passes for the win, the last of them a 40-yard touchdown with 15 seconds remaining.
“I’m extremely proud of the way we fought,” Durham said. “We were faced with some adversity and our character showed. We’re fighters. We’re not going to give up.”
Of course, none of those 92,000-plus who pack Sanford Stadium week after week is the least bit interested in moral victories. They expect this program to contend with the Alabamas and the Floridas of the college football world, but those schools appear to be pulling farther and farther away.
For Georgia, the turning point is easy to spot. After a brilliant finish to the 2007 season left the Bulldogs at No. 2 in the final polls, trailing only national champion LSU, they went into the next season ranked No. 1.
All the weapons were in place: A quarterback, Matthew Stafford, who would be the top pick in the NFL draft; a running back, Knowshon Moreno, who also became a first-round pick; two pro-quality receivers in Mohamed Massaquoi, who’s in the NFL, and Green, who figures to be one of the top picks in next year’s draft.
Then, five weeks into the season, Georgia ran into Nick Saban’s budding powerhouse from Alabama. Before a stunned home crowd, the Bulldogs fell behind 31-0 at halftime and needed a couple of meaningless touchdowns just to make the final score a not-as-respectable-as-it-looked 41-30.
Before the season was done, there would be a 49-10 blowout at the hands of eventual national champion Florida and a 45-42 loss to local rival Georgia Tech, ending a streak of seven straight wins in that series. The team that started out ranked No. 1 in the country wasn’t even the best in its own state.
With Stafford, Moreno and Massaquoi off to the pros, Georgia struggled to an 8-5 mark last season — the worst of Mark Richt’s nine years as head coach and leading to the first major shake-up on his staff. Before a consolation trip to the Independence Bowl, he dumped defensive coordinator Willie Martinez.
Richt is starting to feel some of the expected heat from the talk shows and in the Internet chat rooms — not only for his recent record, but for having nine players arrested this year. Still, he refuses to get dragged into a big-picture look at his program.
Over the last 25 games, the stretch that began with that loss to Alabama, the Bulldogs are just 15-10 with only one significant victory, an upset of Atlantic Coast Conference champion Georgia Tech.
“The state of the program is we’re getting ready for Mississippi State,” Richt said. “It’s early in the year. We’re getting ready to play another SEC game. We’re trying to get a victory in league play.”
His message to the fans: “Just keep supporting and keep fighting, and we will too.”
But the losses, and the irritating little slights, keep on coming.
Old nemesis Steve Spurrier, who beat the Bulldogs 11 out of 12 times at Florida and relished every moment of it, came into this season just 1-4 against Georgia at his current school, South Carolina.
But after the Gamecocks beat up the Bulldogs in a 17-6 win, piling up 189 yards rushing while throwing only 17 times, Spurrier delivered a not-so-subtle shot at Georgia’s new defensive coordinator, Todd Grantham, who had been as assistant in the NFL.
“That little inside zone play, the NFL doesn’t run that play. That’s a new scheme, I guess,” Spurrier said.