ATHENS, Georgia -- After only one game, No. 12 Georgia has suddenly become a popular choice to win the SEC East and contend for one of the four spots in the inaugural College Football Playoff.
It should be no surprise then that Bulldogs coach Mark Richt is trying to tap the brakes on UGA's expectations, even after Saturday's 45-21 victory over No. 16 Clemson, which was one of its most complete efforts in several seasons.
“We played one game and we've got a long way to go,” Richt said. “The old saying is true: You're probably never as good as you think and never as bad as you think. You're never as good as you think after a win and never as bad as you think after a loss.”
While there was plenty to like about the Bulldogs after their opener, mainly their deep stable of running backs and special teams, Georgia still has plenty of work to do.
Georgia's renovated defense threw a shutout in the second half against Clemson, but the Bulldogs' defensive backs were exposed at times during the first 30 minutes. And UGA's passing game didn't seem as potent without injured wide receivers Malcolm Mitchell and Justin Scott-Wesley.
“When you watch the film there's just so much to correct,” Richt said. “We've got to get better in a lot of areas or we're going to be exposed. We know it's just one game. It was a great emotional day, we were at home, we fed off the crowd and we finished strong. It was good but that was just a start.”
And Richt certainly knows how quickly things can go south if the Bulldogs lose at No. 9 South Carolina in on Sept. 13. The Gamecocks were embarrassed by Texas A&M in a 52-28 loss at home on Thursday night. Steve Spurrier has two weeks to turn around his team's defense, starting with Saturday's home game against East Carolina.
“I don't know,” Richt said. “I just think we're really young in so many ways. There are a few veterans who understand the deal, but I don't know how good we are, quite frankly. We had a good performance, we had one good game and even in that game there were things that just need to be corrected. So I'm not going to get too excited yet. We've got a long way to go.”
Other observations from Georgia's opening win over Clemson:
Georgia's special teams have been a trouble spot the past few seasons, but they were outstanding against the Tigers. Tailback Todd Gurley returned a kickoff 100 yards for a touchdown, and UGA's coverage teams put Clemson in bad position for most of the game. In fact, UGA allowed minus-six yards on two punt returns and an 18-yard average on six kickoff returns. Freshman tailback Sony Michel and cornerback Damian Swann were outstanding covering punts, and the Tigers started eight of their 15 possessions inside their 20-yard line.
Mitchell, a junior who missed most of last season with a torn ACL, is still recovering from preseason surgery to repair torn cartilage in his right knee. He watched the Clemson game from the sideline and wasn't using crutches or wearing a brace. Mitchell, who is probably UGA's most explosive receiver, isn't expected back for the South Carolina game, but might be ready to play against Tennessee on Sept. 27. Scott-Wesley, who had 16 catches for 311 yards with two touchdowns last season, might be ready to return from a high ankle sprain in time to play the Gamecocks. Senior receiver Jonathon Rumph also was hurt in practice last week and didn't play against Clemson.
With Mitchell sidelined, look for UGA offensive coordinator Mike Bobo to continue to find ways to get explosive 5-foot-8 freshman Isaiah McKenzie the ball. The Bulldogs put McKenzie and Michel in the slot a few times against Clemson, and then motioned them into the backfield to take handoffs.
Richt wants Gurley more involved in the offense than he was in the first half against Clemson (he had only four carries), but he'll continue to rotate UGA's running backs. Georgia also wants to do a better job of getting junior Keith Marshall into space, instead of having him try to run through the tackles, where Gurley and freshman Nick Chubb are more effective.
New Georgia defensive coordinator Jeremy Pruitt, who was a part of three national championships at Florida State in 2013 and Alabama in 2011 and '12, was far from satisfied with his defense's effort against Clemson. Pruitt said UGA's defense made fewer mistakes in the second half. “It's not like we did any secret things at halftime,” he said. “If you look at our body of work, there were a lot of guys playing who haven't played a lot of football around here. There were a lot of guys that got their feet wet for the first time. For us, it's going to be a daily grind to get better fundamentally, pay attention to detail and create the right habits.”