ATHENS -- The memory is not a fond one for anyone on the Georgia football team. And especially not Bacarri Rambo.
The last time they played in this high profile of a game, when it was also at the Georgia Dome, the Bulldogs were overmatched by Boise State. And Rambo, a junior safety, could do nothing on the sideline, serving a suspension.
“It grates on me a lot,” Rambo said. “I probably could’ve helped change the outcome of the game.”
That loss, televised nationally and hyped for almost a year, was the most recent time that a large chunk of the nation got an impression of Georgia. Three months later, the Bulldogs return to the Georgia Dome on a 10-game winning streak, but with only two of those wins coming over FBS teams with a winning record.
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So here’s the central question as Georgia prepares to face No. 1 LSU in the SEC championship: Just how different is this team from the one that was beaten convincingly the first time around in the Georgia Dome?
“Totally different team from the first game in the Dome,” senior cornerback Brandon Boykin said. “Just everybody has a lot more experience, be able to play in that environment and know what it’s like to play in the big game.”
Head coach Mark Richt has said several times that Georgia “wasn’t ready” for that game against Boise State. The Georgia had five first-time starters in the opener. That doesn’t include freshmen Isaiah Crowell and Damian Swann, two freshmen who saw extensive playing time.
Sophomore quarterback Aaron Murray said he thinks the younger players will be “more equipped for the big game.”
Boykin compared the opener to a bowl game.
“It’s your first college game for a lot of those guys, and then the magnitude of it being in the Georgia Dome and against a top-5 team, it doesn’t really give you a chance to get adjusted,” Boykin said. “It’s like the SEC game, a big bowl game right in the beginning of the year, your first game. So a lot of people were nervous and kind of had to get adjusted to the game-type situation of a college football game.”
Georgia’s defense, which now ranks fifth nationally, was also without two of its best player for most of the game.
Rambo, who leads the SEC with seven interceptions this season, was out the entire game. And inside linebacker Alec Ogletree broke his foot on the third series. Boise State did not score on its first two series.
“I can’t really say how much of a difference I might have made in the outcome,” Ogletree said. “But the first two series that I played in, I felt like our defense was doing pretty good.”
The offensive line looked like a disaster in the making against Boise State, yielding six sacks with only one player (center Ben Jones) starting at the same position he was at last year. But the front five improved as the season went on.
Georgia has also seen several players develop into big-time players:
Outside linebacker Jarvis Jones, who leads the SEC with 14 sacks, didn’t get one until the fourth week of the season.
He’s a redshirt sophomore who had played in the Dome in high school, but he may not have been fully comfortable in his role until later.
Inside linebacker Mike Gilliard, who stepped in for Christian Robinson in the second game, now leads the team in tackles. He barely played against Boise State.
Nose tackle John Jenkins saw few snaps in the opener, but has found his way and helped the defensive line become dominant.
Murray also pointed to turnovers as an improvement. Georgia only had one against Boise State, but had three against South Carolina, including the deciding one when Murray was sacked and fumbled.
Defensively, Georgia forced one turnover by Boise State and two by South Carolina, but has averaged 2.4 turnovers forced since then.
“Just those little mistakes here and there, I think we’ve cleaned up since those first two games,” Murray said.
Still, the fact remains that the schedule has been much easier. Georgia has not faced a team the caliber of Boise State, or even South Carolina, since then.
Now it gets another chance, in the same building, to prove it’s not a product of its schedule.
“We’ll definitely be ready to play,” Boykin said.