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Georgia 45, Georgia Southern 21

Where actual defeat is all but unthinkable, what constitutes victory? On August 10, I answered that question in this manner:

From where I sit, a win, all by its lonesome, will prove nothing; I will need to see four of the following five things occur before I am willing to call any victory over Georgia Southern on August 30 an encouraging sign:

  • Georgia scores at least 45 points

  • Georgia Southern scores no more than 17 points

  • Georgia scores on the Bulldogs’ first possession of each half

  • Georgia Southern does not score on the Eagles’ first possession of either half

  • Georgia’s offense has at least four plays covering 20 or more yards

Well, Georgia scored exactly 45 points, but Georgia Southern scored four more than 17 points. (Credit MaconDawg with correctly predicting the margin of victory, if not the actual final score.) The Bulldogs’ first drive of the first quarter covered 57 yards in five plays for seven points and their first drive of the third quarter covered 71 yards in two plays for seven points. The Eagles’ first possession of the first half was a three-and-out that lost four yards and their first possession of the second half was a three-and-out that gained seven yards.

Finally, the Red and Black had four plays of well more than 20 yards---namely, a 36-yard completion from Matthew Stafford to A.J. Green, a 61-yard completion from Stafford to Kris Durham, a 37-yard completion from Stafford to Knowshon Rockwell Moreno, and a 47-yard completion from Stafford to Mohamed Massaquoi---ere the opening minute of the third period had elapsed.

Good game, Matt. Nevertheless, I have a few notes.

All right, that’s four out of five. Mission accomplished, right? So why do I feel as (relatively) badly as I do about what was, according to every indicator, a fine day for the ‘Dawgs?

It certainly isn’t that I had a rough day; far from it. My kindergarten-age son, Thomas, and I left at an early but not unreasonable hour, made the trek to Athens, and were in our seats in time for the initial festivities of the 22nd consecutive home opener I have attended between the hedges. (I am proud of that record; in 1996, I had to leave a friend’s wedding reception early and change clothes in the car in order to get to Sanford Stadium in time. Don’t get me started on weddings that take place during football season. . . .)

As father-son outings go, this was one of the best, just the boy and me, there to see Uga VII anointed and the top-ranked team in the land on the field. As on-field efforts go, this one was pretty solid. Stafford had what was statistically his best day ever in a Bulldog uniform, hooking up on 13 of 21 attempts for 275 yards, two touchdowns, and no interceptions. Despite a disastrous early series that was as inefficient in its execution as it was premature in its timing, Joe Cox was passably effective in the backup role, completing four of six passes for 48 yards and another score.

Offensive line issues aside, the Georgia ground game’s production (212 yards) more than doubled up the Eagles’ rushing output (102), with Moreno making the most of his eight carries by tallying a trio of touchdowns and Caleb King living up to the early hype by racking up 95 yards on a dozen rushes for a higher per-carry average (7.9) even than that managed by the fellow whose jersey (or, at least, a replica thereof) I was wearing (7.4).

Yeah, that would be the one.

Blair Walsh, the true freshman placekicker whose position was the subject of so much preseason angst, got off to the best start of any Bulldog, burying the opening kickoff deep in the end zone for a touchback and making good on a 52-yard first-quarter field goal attempt that would have been the stuff of Kevin Butler-like legend had it been tried from ten yards farther away (and it certainly had the distance to have been good from that much farther out) and against an actual rival. More than half of the third quarter had passed before Georgia Southern scored its first points of the contest.

Except under the most extreme of circumstances, I probably err on the side of being overly positive rather than needlessly dour, at least where football is concerned. Nevertheless, I came away from this outing feeling that the glass was half-empty rather than half-full. (I freely concede that this may be attributable to the fact that Thomas didn’t last quite as long as I had anticipated, so I listened to the second half in the car on the way home. Short of the occasional miracle---the aforementioned Butler field goal; Buck Belue to Lindsay Scott; Verron Haynes’s touchdown catch in Knoxville; etc.---no Georgia game ever seems to be going as well in a Larry Munson play call as it is in person.)

These facts indisputably are facts:

  • Georgia Southern matched Georgia score-for-score in the second half. Yes, it was against the scrubs, but if the Bulldog reserves are merely the equal of a Division I-AA team---even a good Division I-AA team (and it has yet to be established that G.S.U. is much more than average)---then the ‘Dawgs are not the equal of Auburn, Florida, or Louisiana State, much less Ohio State or Southern California.

  • For all his statistical proficiency, Stafford was less sharp than he seemed on paper. Georgia Southern’s obviously intimidated receivers had the fear-induced dropsies; Georgia’s receivers weren’t failing to catch the ball, but the Bulldog quarterback overthrew open receivers on more than one occasion and the only reason the two-play scoring drive that opened the third quarter wasn’t a one-play scoring drive that opened the third quarter was that Massaquoi had to slow down to bring in the ball. Had Stafford hit him in stride, it would have gone 71 yards for six points.

  • Jeff Owens was lost early in the outing, and, evidently, not just for the short term.

Get well soon, big guy. (Photograph by Kelly Lambert for Athens Banner-Herald.)

  • Although Green and King undeniably had solid games, they also made freshman mistakes. Green incurred a false start penalty on second and three that caused a drive to stall, forcing Georgia to settle for a field goal when the ‘Dawgs were nine feet away from a first down at the G.S.U. 31. King’s subsequent failure to pick up a blitz could have gotten his quarterback killed had the opponent been from the Southeastern Conference rather than from the Southern Conference.

  • Following a hot start, Walsh cooled considerably. His first kickoff went 70 yards, but his second went 50 (and was returned for four), while his third went 67 (and was returned for 45). His next five kickoffs set up the Eagles on the 24, 27, 30, 30 (before a 15-yard personal foul penalty against Georgia), and 32 yard lines, respectively; none made it into the end zone.

  • Speaking of the 15-yard personal foul penalty, the Red and Black drew eleven flags, many for flinches at the line of scrimmage, as the offense incurred its share of false start penalties and the defense received more than its share of offside penalties.

Don’t get me wrong; I’m not displeased with this afternoon’s effort. I’m not even not pleased in any meaningful way, if that makes sense. Arguably, this was Georgia’s best effort ever against a Georgia Southern squad, inasmuch as the Bulldogs neither allowed a 40-yard option run by the Eagle quarterback to give the visitors a 7-0 first-quarter lead (as in 1992) nor registered an underwhelming 29-7 victory (as in 2000) nor surrendered four touchdowns (as in 2004).

This was a fine game by a fine team. If Georgia had taken the field ranked No. 9 in the Associated Press poll, I might actually have been happy with this result.

However, Georgia didn’t take the field ranked No. 9 in the Associated Press poll, and, at this level, style points matter. Truly elite college football teams take on in-state opponents from lower divisions in their season openers and trounce them 43-0, or they beat the defending Division I-AA national champions 41-13, or they beat the defending W.A.C. champions 56-10, or, at a minimum, they shut out somebody from the Sun Belt. Some truly elite college football teams even travel across the country to face B.C.S. conference opponents that attended bowl games last season and thump the home team 52-7 in a trouncing so utterly routine as to be uninteresting.

On the plus side, my daughter, Elizabeth, had her game face (or, at least, her game outfit) on today.

The question is a stark and simple one, and it was stated plainly by Quinton McDawg: "So, was that the performance of a No. 1 ranked team?"

I have to state, in all candor, that it wasn’t. It was the performance of a top ten team, certainly. It was the performance of a team that is capable of finishing first in the land, undoubtedly. At this exact moment, early in the 2008 campaign, though, I cannot conscientiously claim that the Bulldog team that took the field in Sanford Stadium today would have beaten either the Buckeye team that took the field in Columbus or the Trojan team that took the field in Charlottesville.

Georgia will be in my top five, but, when I cast my BlogPoll ballot after all the gridiron action this Labor Day weekend is done, the Bulldogs no longer will be ranked No. 1. They will occupy that position in my heart, always, but, at this instant, my head knows better.

Go ‘Dawgs!