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November 21, 2009

AND We Covered, to Boot!

Celebrate!  In Georgia's win over Auburn, for only the third time this season and fifth game of the last 19 dating back to last year, the Bulldogs actually covered the spread. (Photo: Kelly Lambert of Online Athens

Last week, I was hired on at Covers.com to do freelance writing for the website. 

My first article was on the Bulldogs and pasted below.  My next piece, the top five college football teams that will finish this season the strongest, will be posted on their site Sunday night/Monday morning.

Go Figure the Georgia Bulldogs

The Georgia Bulldogs entered their game last Saturday against Auburn amidst the program’s worst campaign in 13 seasons. At 5-4, the Dogs were considered a team that did absolutely nothing, besides punting and placekicking, particularly well.

Georgia’s defense, one of the worst in the SEC, was facing an Auburn offense ranked among the best in the nation, averaging 230 rushing yards and more than 450 total yards per game. In addition, when the Bulldogs had exhibited any kind of momentum during the season, they had often shot themselves in the foot; Georgia was being penalized 9.44 times and committing 2.44 turnovers per game. In contrast, its defense had forced just six turnovers the entire year; Georgia’s -1.78 turnover margin ranked 119th of 120 FBS teams.

Georgia was a bettor’s dream when playing on its opponent. The Bulldogs were only 2-7 against the number for the season and just 4-14 since facing Alabama the year before—a game many UGA football followers indicate as the point when the program started its fall from grace.

As we know, generally it’s these close followers or “insiders” who know the most and provide the best insight about the local team. Two days prior to the Auburn game, one of Georgia’s most popular independent blogs pleaded to the fan base not to boo the team “if things get out of hand…JUST LEAVE [the stadium].” A reader commented, “I could see [Auburn’s offense] abusing [Georgia’s defense] and Auburn going up 24-0 or something like that.” The general sentiment among many Bulldog fans was Georgia had little chance against the Tigers.

So, as you can imagine, it was quite shocking when Georgia opened as 4½-point favorites. I immediately speculated the line setters had put way too much stock in home field advantage for the Bulldogs—something Georgia has little of.

Since Coach Mark Richt arrived in Athens in 2001, Georgia has won just 40% of its games against the spread at home compared to 61% at away and neutral sites. The Georgia-Auburn series, in particular, has proven to have little home field advantage; the visitor had lost just four times the previous 17 meetings and was 11-6 against the number.

“The Deep South’s Oldest Rivalry” had met 112 times before Saturday and every year except one (1943) since 1919. Georgia, winners of three in a row, had not defeated Auburn four consecutive times since the 1940s. The odds were certainly stacked against the Bulldogs to make it four in a row in 2009.

If I was to play anything last Saturday, it was undoubtedly Auburn plus the points or even the Tigers and the money line.

As I and many others expected, Auburn jumped out to a 14-0 first-quarter lead and was driving for a third score when suddenly the tables turned. The Tigers’ vaunted offense would not cross Georgia’s goal line for the final three-plus quarters and the Bulldogs were victorious 31-24, surprisingly covering the points.

The penalty and turnover-prone Dogs committed just four penalties and, for the first time in 15 games dating back to last season, did not lose a turnover. Georgia’s dreadful defense held Auburn to 353 yards and intercepted two passes in its win and rare cover.

Beginning with the victory over Auburn, it is safe to say, we could see a completely different Georgia team henceforth. In the previous three seasons, Coach Richt’s Bulldogs have proven to rebound during difficult times or after a tough loss.

Three years ago, like this season, Georgia had a record of 6-4, losers of four of its previous five games. Nevertheless, the Bulldogs ended the year with three wins over three ranked opponents (two of the three were decided favorites) to finish with nine wins. The 2006 season is considered by many as Richt’s best coaching effort in his nine seasons at Georgia.

In 2007, Georgia was thumped by Tennessee by three touchdowns, dropping its record to 4-2. The Bulldogs responded by winning their final seven games, including covering five of their last six, to finish ranked number two in the nation.

Last season, the Bulldogs were upset at home against rival Georgia Tech in the regular-season finale, losing 45-42 as more than a touchdown favorite. With more than a month to prepare for the Capital One Bowl, Georgia, and specifically its defense, answered with a 24-12 win and cover over Michigan State to finish a successful 10-3 year.

The best predictor of the future is often the past, so I look for Georgia to continue the impressive performance it displayed against Auburn through the end of the season.

The Bulldogs host Kentucky this Saturday and will have the advantage of playing the Wildcats at night and on Senior Day. The following week, Georgia plays at Georgia Tech looking for revenge from a year ago and to deflate the Yellow Jackets’ banner year. The Bulldogs are 7-1 straight up against Tech in the Coach Richt era and 5-2-1 against the spread.

In recent years, Georgia has been one of college football’s most successful bowl teams, recording a 10-2 record since the last time the Bulldogs missed out on the postseason in 1996. During the same time, Georgia is 8-4 against the number in bowl games, including 5-2 since 2002.

During halftime of the Georgia-Auburn game as the Bulldogs trailed 14-7, Georgia defensive tackle and team leader Jeff Owens, a senior, told the team he was not going to end his collegiate playing career “this way”; the game and season, although disappointing, were far from over.

"I had to tell guys we've got to get up because we've got to finish strong," Owens said to the Athens Banner-Herald following the game.

Expect Owens and his teammates, as they did against Auburn, to also finish the 2009 season in a strong manner, similarly to the Georgia Bulldog teams of recent years.

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