If Georgia needed incentive to play hard and fast and up to its potential the rest of the season, it has plenty of it.
The Bulldogs are two SEC wins away from returning to the conference’s championship game, thanks to Saturday’s victory over Florida, so desire and motivation shouldn’t be issues when they play Ole Miss and Auburn the next two weeks.
But Mark Richt’s teams have shown through the years that strong efforts aren’t always followed by repeat performances. And these Bulldogs have struggled at times, despite a 7-1 record (5-1 SEC) and No. 6 ranking in the BCS Standings.
“Playing these bigger games in November, now that mean more, I think that will be easier (to be motivated),” linebacker Christian Robinson told the Athens Banner-Herald. “When you have something to play for, it makes it easier to win those games.”
Georgia is following a similar path it used to reach last year’s SEC Championship game.
The Bulldogs lost to South Carolina early in 2011, but then won the rest of their SEC games and watched the Gamecocks slip up against Auburn and Arkansas.
This year, South Carolina knocked off Georgia on Oct. 6, but the Bulldogs defeated Florida for the second straight year while the Gamecocks lost back-to-back games to LSU and Florida. That means Georgia is back where it wants to be, with only Ole Miss (5-3, 2-2) and Auburn (1-7, 0-6) in the way.
“It’s like (linebacker) Jarvis Jones said, this win (over Florida) doesn’t mean anything if we don’t keep winning,” quarterback Aaron Murray said.
Georgia must answer two questions on Saturday:
1. Can Murray rebound from his worst performance of the season?
2. Will the defense, which is loaded with potential NFL first-round picks, put together another strong effort like it had against Florida?
Murray has played well this season and holds the school record with 76 career touchdown passes, but he has a tendency to struggle in big games. Georgia is averaging 265.2 yards passing, but Murray threw for 109 yards and an interception in the loss to South Carolina and had 150 yards passing and three interceptions against Florida last week.
He was impressive late, however, going 4-for-6 and a touchdown on the Bulldogs’ final drive as receiver Malcolm Mitchell turned a short out into a 45-yard scoring pass.
“We are capable of playing with that emotion and intensity every game. We want to play every week with that,” Murray said. “Being back in the lead in the East is big. It gives us the chance to play in Atlanta.”
Georgia, which averages 460.1 yards and 36.8 points, has repeatedly displayed its ability to score against lesser defenses, so Murray and the offense shouldn’t have a problem against Ole Miss, which allows 369.5 yards (ninth in the SEC) and 26.6 points (10th).
Richt seems to be more concerned about the defense, and would love see a repeat of the intensity he saw last week.
Jones returned to the lineup after missing one game with a sprained ankle and sparked the Bulldogs to their best defensive performance of the season. They held the Gators to 266 yards, forced six turnovers and had five sacks, showing the fire and desire that was expected of them all season.
Georgia will need it against Ole Miss, which is in top six in the SEC in scoring (32.4 points), total offense (430 yards), rushing (194.4) and passing (235.6).
When asked how Georgia’s defense would respond this week, Richt said: “That’s a good question. 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.”