ATHENS -- Mark Richt has been involved in the national game of the week the first two weeks of the college football season. So yes, the Georgia head coach will put his feet up and watch someone else -- Alabama and Texas A&M -- go through it this weekend.
“I don’t know exactly where I’ll be when I’m watching it, but I’ll be watching that thing just like the rest of the college football world,” Richt said Sunday.
Because of a bye week, followed by a home game that should be a cakewalk, Georgia is experiencing a sudden stop of intensity this week. The Bulldogs had two huge games to open the season, coming away with a split.
But Georgia got the one that is the most important, because beating South Carolina means a leg up in the SEC East standings. Saturday’s 41-30 victory serves to galvanize Georgia’s season, not letting the season-opening 38-35 loss at Clemson ruin the Bulldogs’ plans.
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In fact, Richt opined that the first-week loss helped Georgia beat South Carolina.
“Losing’s no fun. It’s awful to lose, period, and losing your first game’s no fun at all, especially when it’s your first game and the whole world is watching. But I’d have to say it helped us in game two,” Richt said. “There’s no margin for error in big games. You can’t make certain mistakes and expect to win.”
Then he listed the ways his team played better, starting with less penalty yardage and no turnovers. The only major mistake was punter Collin Barber dropping a snap, costing the team about 50 yards of field position.
“We tackled better. We blocked better. We played with more intensity,” Richt said. “You just never know what play could be the play that turns the game around, with two teams that are very good and you know is gonna be a close game. I think playing that game and living through it helped us in the South Carolina game.”
Adding to the good news, the Bulldogs came out of the game relatively injury-free. Left tackle Kenarious Gates (ankle) and tailback Keith Marshall (knee) both had X-rays come back negative, according to Richt, who expects anyone hurt in the South Carolina game to be ready to go for the next game.
And since that game is against North Texas, any lingering injuries can be treated carefully, so as to be at optimal strength for LSU on Sept. 28.
For the first time in four years, Georgia comes out of the South Carolina game not needing help in order to win the division. The national title hopes would also seem to be back on the table. Georgia moved up to No. 10 in the USA Today coaches poll, which is part of the BCS formula, as well as No. 9 in the AP poll, which is not part of the formula.
Still, the Bulldogs have plenty of issues to firm up before they can be able to run the table.
The defense looms as the big concern, as it has given up a lot of yards and points in each game. The return of sophomore safety Josh Harvey-Clemons, potentially one of the top players on defense, didn’t pay immediate dividends Saturday.
So what can be fixed? Richt pointed to tackling, specifically not playing with the Bulldogs’ pads low enough. The exception is someone like Sterling Bailey. But others weren’t getting low enough.
“I think our perimeter is gonna get better just by virtue off the fact they’re getting experience,” Richt said. “A lot of them, other than (junior cornerback Damian) Swann, are really getting playing time for the first time. So I think they’ll get better as we go.”
The offense would not seem to be a problem, based on the South Carolina game. But the offensive line will have to continue the improvement it showed in that game, rather than revert to the many problems that came up at Clemson.
“I still think we’ve got a bunch of guys that have to have that kind of effort to be successful,” Richt said. “They’re not so physically gifted that they’re gonna dominate people. They have to fight like mad. Every snap that they do, they’re effective.”