Georgia gets help in SEC East race

Updated: October 5, 2003, 8:22 PM ET

ATHENS, Ga. -- Mark Richt liked what he saw for one half. He liked what he saw when he got home.

Georgia scored 37 points in the first half on the way to a 37-23 victory over Alabama, which vaulted the Bulldogs three spots to No. 8 in The Associated Press rankings released Sunday.

Richt got home in time to see Auburn upset then-No. 7 Tennessee 28-21 -- a boost to Georgia's chances of getting back to the Southeastern Conference championship game.

The Bulldogs (4-1, 2-1 SEC) head to Knoxville next Saturday for a game that could wind up determining the Eastern Division champion.

"The winner will take the lead, and head-to-head is so important because there's a good chance a couple of teams could have the same record at the end," Richt said. "Whoever wins the head-to-head has a chance to play in the championship game."

The Bulldogs put together a brilliant first half against Alabama, which trailed 30-3 before making a first down. The Crimson Tide had not given up that many points in a half since the school began keeping detailed records in 1933.

But Georgia couldn't keep it going in the second half. Even though Alabama wound up playing its third-string quarterback because of injuries, the Tide still managed to make things interesting.

Charles Jones picked off a pass from David Greene and returned it 30 yards for a touchdown. Then, Georgia punter Gordon Ely-Kelso muffed a snap and Juwan Garth ran it back 10 yards for another score.

"Some of the things that happened in the second half were typical of a team that has young players," Richt said. "We don't have the consistency we'd like to have. We show signs of being an outstanding team some moments. Other times, we can't get our substitutions in and out of the game."

But nothing like what Alabama is enduring in coach Mike Shula's first season.

The Tide (2-4, 1-2) had lost its first three games -- all to ranked teams -- by a combined 13 points, but this one wasn't even close. Georgia scored off a blocked punt, recovered a fumble that led to another TD and stuffed Alabama on fourth-and-inches, setting up yet another score.

"We felt as low as we could at halftime," Shula said. "The bottom line is we can't make the mistakes we made."

The rookie coach appeared to make a mistake when he put ailing quarterback Brodie Croyle in the game with Alabama already getting blown out.

Croyle didn't start after separating his left (non-throwing) shoulder the previous week. With Spencer Pennington struggling to move the offense, Shula decided to make the change. Croyle lasted only two plays, re-injuring the shoulder on Odell Thurman's vicious hit.

Croyle watched the rest of the game in street clothes. Before it was over, Pennington hurt his right shoulder and left the field with his arm in a sling.

"It was a tough decision to put Brodie in," Shula said. "He just got hit on it one more time. There's not another separation."

While Georgia came out of the game with no major injuries, the prognosis for running back Tony Milton is not good. After rehabbing an injured right leg, he tried to play against Alabama but managed only 5 yards on four carries.

"I don't know if he can get any better without surgery," Richt said. "There's a chance that we have to go in that direction before he'll play again for us."

Milton has a developed a calcium deposit in a bone just below the knee.

"It's just a pain thing," Richt said. "It's really kept him from playing at full speed. The pain is not really subsiding at all."

Sophomore Tyson Browning has emerged as the leading tailback in Milton's absence, despite being suspended for the first three games after violating team rules.

Against Alabama, Browning rushed for 47 yards on 13 carries and caught two passes for 22 yards.

"He made some outstanding runs and some outstanding catches," Richt said. "He's really made the most improvement to this point."

Michael Cooper, the team's leading rusher, didn't play Saturday because of a sprained knee. He's expected to return against Tennessee, joining Browning and freshman Kregg Lumpkin in the tailback rotation.

Lumpkin rushed for 55 yards and scored his first college touchdown against Alabama.

Richt conceded the Bulldogs will have trouble dominating a team on the ground, with five new starters on the offensive line and the ever-changing tailback position.

"We're in the middle of some growing pains at those two positions," he said.

Come Saturday, it will be time to grow up.

This story is from ESPN.com's automated news wire. Wire index