Dawgs no longer the SEC's best

Originally Published: October 11, 2004
By Ivan Maisel | ESPN.com

Georgia learned a hard alphabetical lesson in the vocabulary of college football on Saturday.

The Dawgs understood the meaning of hallelujah after their 45-16 revenge-filled rout of LSU on Oct. 2.

They puffed out their expansive chests with hubris after putting themselves in great position to three-peat in the SEC East. After all, Tennessee, losers of four straight to Georgia, arrived at Sanford Stadium having gotten blown out at home by Auburn, 34-10.

Erik Ainge guided the Vols to an upset over Georgia in Athens.
Volunteer freshman quarterback Erik Ainge, who committed five of his team's six turnovers in the loss, had never started a road game in the SEC. Opposite him was Georgia senior David Greene, who had a 36-8 record as a starter and had led the Dawgs to 17 straight wins Between the Hedges.

Unfortunately, the Dawgs didn't learn the meaning of humility until Saturday evening, when the Volunteers won a 19-14 upset and took control of the East. No. 14 Tennessee (4-1, 2-1) has beaten Georgia and Florida, which means that the Vols win any tiebreaker with those two contenders.

Ainge completed 12-of-21 passes for 150 yards and no interceptions and looked more like the unruffled quarterback who led the Vols over Florida on Sept. 18 than the befuddled freshman who faltered against Auburn. More important, Tennessee didn't come out throwing the way it did against Auburn. The Vols staked themselves to a 10-0 lead, grounded out 127 rushing yards and kept the ball for more than 35 minutes.

Tennessee punted only twice, and Georgia remained within striking distance only because James Wilhoit, the goat-turned-hero of the Florida victory, missed three long field goals (40, 49 and 51 yards).

Georgia once again struggled to run the ball. Freshman Danny Ware, whose return to the lineup against LSU after a lung injury appeared to revitalize the Dawg attack, managed 64 yards in 15 carries. But the need to come from behind put the Georgia offense in the same throw-first posture that has been at the root of its problems.

The Dawgs also committed 12 penalties for 82 yards, another indication of a lack of concentration.

"It was a weird game," Greene said after the loss. "I can't explain it. For the first three quarters, I felt like a non-factor. We could not get anything going. None of the things that went right against LSU went our way. ... You are not going to win when you spend half the game in third and long."

It's possible that Georgia put so much into beating LSU, which defeated the Dawgs twice last year, including a 34-13 defeat in the SEC championship game, that Georgia had a tough time refocusing a week later. Given what was at stake, though, that's hard to believe.

The Gators (3-2, 2-2) don't look as if they will be contending for much of anything after their last-minute 24-21 loss at home to resurgent LSU. Florida has run hot and cold in two-plus seasons under coach Ron Zook, and no matter how well the Gators play from here, their only chance of winning the East hinges upon Tennessee losing two conference games.

Georgia only needs the Vols to lose once, which isn't much of a salve for the Bulldogs, who felt as if they had firmly established themselves in the national championship mix with their dominance of LSU. The Dawgs fell from third to eighth, which means they still have a good chance of getting to the Orange Bowl, especially with No. 4 Auburn on the schedule.

However, Georgia had an opportunity to salt away the SEC East on Saturday, and failed to do it. Florida, too, must be kicking itself, after blowing another lead. Third-year coach Ron Zook has committed to playing young players, and the Gators continue to wait for the day when they will have gained enough experience to not fall apart in the second half.

There was the loss to Miami a year ago, when the Gators led, 33-10 and lost, 38-33. There was the 28-21 lead that Florida failed to hold at Tennessee on Sept. 18, losing 30-28, and there was Saturday night, when the Gators jumped out a 21-7 lead in the second quarter but couldn't stop LSU's ground game in the fourth quarter.

That was the Gators' sixth home loss under Zook, one more than his predecessor, Steve Spurrier, lost in the Swamp in his 12 seasons in Gainesville. Florida has the comfort of knowing that it has defeated Georgia in 13 of the last 14 seasons, but, like Georgia, the Gators must be wondering how they let Tennessee take control of the East.

The SEC West has no such suspense. Auburn is 6-0, 3-0 in the league, and Arkansas (3-2, 1-1) and Ole Miss (3-3, 2-1) are the only other teams in the division with fewer than two conference losses. The Tigers get the Razorbacks at Jordan-Hare Stadium this week, and that's the same Ole Miss that has lost to Wyoming and struggled to beat Vanderbilt and Arkansas State.

Or maybe it's the Ole Miss team that shocked South Carolina Saturday. The Rebels' 31-28 upset meant the Gamecocks' chance of playing the dark horse in the SEC all but faded to black.

Still, no one believes that Mississippi can challenge Auburn. The Tigers' biggest issue at this point is to avoid the pitfall of not taking someone seriously en route to their season-ending games against their two biggest rivals, Georgia and Alabama.

So far, so good -- Louisiana Tech was a perfect candidate not to take seriously. The Bulldogs, nestled between big conference games against Tennessee and Arkansas, will be the biggest challenge to Boise State in the Western Athletic Conference. Auburn pummeled Louisiana Tech, 52-7. Two weeks earlier, Auburn did the same thing to I-AA The Citadel, winning 33-3. Six games into the season, the Tigers have met every challenge. They have a lot of senior leadership on both sides of the ball.

This week's word in the college football vocabulary is hump, the one Auburn has gotten over at the halfway point of the season. The Tigers are the most serious national championship contender in the SEC.

Ivan Maisel is a senior writer for ESPN.com. Send your question/comments to Ivan at ivan.maisel@espn3.com. Your e-mail could be answered in a future Maisel E-mails.

Ivan Maisel | email

Senior Writer, ESPN.com

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