ATHENS — After underachieving through much of the season, Georgia’s defense rose at the right time with a dominant performance in last week’s win over Florida.
The important 17-9 win over the previously undefeated Gators came after safety Shawn Williams said the defense had been playing soft. It was a dramatic turnaround after the Bulldogs allowed at least 20 points in six of their first seven games.
What defense will show up for No. 7 Georgia on Saturday against Mississippi? It may be difficult for the defense to play with the same intensity against the unranked Rebels when it hasn’t been challenged by one of its own players.
Coach Mark Richt insists he doesn’t have the answer — but he hopes it’s more motivation for his defense.
“That’s a good question,” Richt said Tuesday at his weekly news conference. “You ought to write a story about that, maybe make everybody mad. That would be nice.
“I’m serious, I don’t know. I don’t know what they are going to do this week. I hope they play like they did this past week. I hope we continue to get after it with that kind of emotion and heartbeat.”
Linebacker Jarvis Jones had a career-high 13 tackles with three sacks, two forced fumbles and two fumble recoveries as the defense forced six turnovers.
Bacarri Rambo and Damian Swann had interceptions as Georgia held Florida without a touchdown.
Georgia (7-1, 5-1 Southeastern Conference) can clinch its second straight trip to the SEC championship game by beating Ole Miss (5-3, 2-2) and Auburn.
Georgia players insist playing for a SEC championship is ample reason to avoid a letdown this week.
“Just keep up the intensity, play with the same chip we played with last week,” Swann said. “We’re in control of our own destiny. We just have to win out.”
Asked if the defense can match the intensity it displayed against Florida, Swann said “Of course.”
“I think that game gave us a lot of momentum, and we enjoyed that,” he said. “We just have to keep moving forward, keep playing.”
Jones, a 2011 first-team All-America, is rated as a possible No. 1 overall pick in the 2013 NFL draft. The junior was named the Walter Camp national defensive player of the week and SEC defensive player of the week.
Richt said Jones may rank with Notre Dame linebacker Manti Te’o as the nation’s best defensive players.
“I don’t know if there is a better defensive football player in America than Jarvis,” Richt said. “I know the linebacker at Notre Dame is a great player as well. They might be equally great, and they are both so important to their team.”
Richt then talked himself into a bigger compliment when he reviewed Jones’ season totals of 8 ½ sacks, five forced fumbles and 14 tackles for losses despite missing two games with injuries.
“I think he’s the best player in America,” Richt said.
Best player? On offense or defense?
“I can’t think of a better player than Jarvis in the whole United States of America,” Richt said. “He’s the best.”
Ole Miss coach Hugh Freeze said there should be no more suggestions that the Jones-led defense is soft.
“I did not see a Georgia team that shied away from any physicality,” Freeze said. “They’re a very physical football team. Their interior defensive line has huge guys, and they surround them with all of those linebackers that can run. They’re not too small themselves. Their secondary is very sound. They’re solid tacklers and big, physical kids. When you look at it, you certainly see an SEC defense.”
Jones isn’t the defense’s only highly regarded player. Rambo also was a 2011 first-team All-America. Linebacker Alec Ogletree, Williams, massive defensive tackle John Jenkins (6-3, 358) and others are also highly regarded by NFL draft experts.
The long list of talented players makes the unit’s uneven play this season difficult to explain. Georgia struggled to beat Tennessee 51-44 in its last home game on Sept. 29. It gave up 23 points to Buffalo and 20 points to Florida Atlantic.
The defense proved last week it could answer a challenge.
“When somebody tries our manhood or says anything to belittle, us we always respond,” said defensive end Garrison Smith.
Now the unit must show it can play at a high level in back-to-back games.
“We have a great defense and a great team,” Smith said. “It’s possible. It’s in us. We’ve seen it. Game after game, sometimes, you know, we come out not like that. But always it’s in us. We’re going to do our best to bring it back every week and play like this every game from here out.”