ATHENS, Ga. -- There was never any mystery about where the question marks existed on this Georgia team. With the bulk of a record-setting offense returning, the progress of a wholly reconstructed defense would likely make the biggest difference in whether the Bulldogs reach their championship goals.
Georgia's first four games showed exactly why those questions were valid, as Todd Grantham's group that had glaring holes to fill at every level typically struggled mightily against the nation's most challenging September schedule. And yet even when statistics -- and the eyeball test -- might paint an ugly picture of Georgia's current defensive capabilities, Grantham's group has done just enough to help keep the Bulldogs' division, conference and BCS title hopes alive.
"I believe that we showed up at the crucial time when we really needed to," said Georgia defensive lineman Ray Drew, who had a key pass breakup on LSU's final drive during the Bulldogs' 44-41 win last Saturday. "There were some things that happened that if we could go back and change, we would. But I'm happy with the outcome."
That has been a common theme thus far. No. 6 Georgia (3-1, 2-0 SEC) has won three in a row -- including wins against then-No. 6 South Carolina and LSU, also ranked sixth when it lost to the Bulldogs -- following a season-opening loss at Clemson. In each of those victories, a defense that looked helpless for much of the game came up with key fourth-down stops on the opponent's final possession that helped put away the win.
"It just shows our potential and shows what our future holds," said outside linebacker Jordan Jenkins, whose team visits Tennessee (3-2, 0-1) on Saturday. "If we can play like that 24/7, consistently, we have a hell of a defense and that's just going to get us where we want to go."
They're not anywhere near that potential yet, however. So let's take a look at some things Georgia's defense is doing right -- and what it absolutely must improve -- if the Bulldogs are to approach the defensive results they still believe they're capable of achieving.
Solid run defense: Clemson and South Carolina both rushed for at least 197 yards against the Bulldogs and both teams broke one run that covered at least 36 yards. But Georgia's run defense has been its calling card over the last two weeks, limiting North Texas to just 7 yards on 25 attempts and then 77 yards to LSU on 36 tries. The longest run in either of the last two games was 16 yards.
That's a sign of enormous progress, particularly against an LSU team whose forte is its physical running game.
"I thought we won the line of scrimmage and I thought that was the difference in the game without question other than the skill guys doing their thing, for sure," Georgia coach Mark Richt said after the LSU game. "But it's hard to throw the ball when you're on your back. It's hard to run the ball when there's no space."
New defensive line coach Chris Wilson expanded the rotation up front to include Drew, Garrison Smith, Sterling Bailey, Chris Mayes, John Taylor, Toby Johnson and Mike Thornton, among others, and the line is starting to show its promise. Georgia linemen have already accounted for 4.5 sacks when the line totaled just 3.5 sacks in all of 2012.
Improving pass rush/pressure: Georgia's pass rush could be called inconsistent at best, but it's getting better. The Bulldogs rank fourth in the SEC with nine sacks and have six sacks and 17 tackles for a loss in the last two games -- with true freshman Leonard Floyd posting all of his team-high three sacks against North Texas and LSU.
He and Jenkins played a major role in ending LSU's final drive on Saturday. Floyd forced the Tigers to burn their final timeout with a first-down sack to open the drive. Later, he and Jenkins' pass rush forced LSU's Zach Mettenberger to throw before he was ready on fourth down, and he sailed the pass over Odell Beckham Jr.'s head incomplete.
"If [Floyd] can add some strength to his repertoire of rushes, he's going to be even more effective," Richt said. "But to come in as a freshman like he is, a true freshman, and make some of the plays he's made so far has been great. He's been playing with a lot of energy."
Third-down defense: While the defense did a commendable job getting LSU into third-and-long situations, it did a horrendous job closing out those series. The Tigers converted for a first down on 10 out of their 15 third downs -- with the most embarrassing moment coming when Mettenberger hit Beckham for a 25-yard gain on third-and-22 on the Tigers' go-ahead touchdown drive in the fourth quarter.
Grantham sent only three pass rushers after LSU's quarterback, but not a single Georgia pass defender disrupted a Tiger receiver's pass route.
"We knew it was a crucial mistake. It was third-and-22 and we were in prevent, too, and they still got it," freshman safety Tray Matthews said. "But Coach Grantham said we didn't get any reroutes on the receivers, so they were just full speed."
Clearly chapped over the outcome of that play, Grantham called it a sign of immaturity.
"We're all excited and we don't do what we're supposed to do on third-and-22 and they get a first down," Grantham said. "We should be off the field right there. The game should have been over, or it could have been a chance for us to make it a two-score game. You've got to learn from that. You can't get caught up in the moment."
Georgia typically stood among the nation's top defenses at forcing three-and-outs over the last two seasons -- 36.2 percent of opponent drives ending in three-and-outs, good for 37th in the FBS over that span -- but they've been rare against the Bulldogs' better opponents. LSU and South Carolina both had just one three-and-out, while Clemson had four.
"We all know we didn't do very good on third-and-long defense, but it's hard to get a team in that position," Richt said. "So if we can keep getting them in the third-and-long and then make some more stops in those third-and-long situations, we're going to be really pretty good."
Secondary youth: Perhaps the most critical element in those third-down failures is Georgia's inexperience in the secondary. The Bulldogs were playing three true freshmen -- Quincy Mauger and Matthews at safety and Shaq Wiggins at cornerback -- during LSU's final drive on Saturday. True freshman cornerback Brendan Langley also earned a heavy workload against the Tigers.
"As far as the secondary's concerned, you've got to live through it. You've got to live through the pain of learning how to play in the SEC," Richt said. "When you're playing a bunch of young guys, a bunch of true freshmen and really inexperienced players, you're going to take your lumps. Thankfully the lumps we took didn't cost us a game this weekend."
The group has been vulnerable in pass coverage, particularly when the defensive front doesn't offer much pressure, by surrendering a number of big plays. Numerous times a vertical route down the middle, behind the linebackers, has resulted in a big gain for an opponent. Langley was targeted for a couple of touchdowns against South Carolina, but even veteran cornerback Damian Swann has been victimized on a few long passes.
"It is a growing process, just being able to be like, 'All right, I'm going to make some mistakes.' You've just got to be able to move onto the next play," Mauger said.
Lack of turnovers: Another defensive calling card from the last two seasons that has been nearly absent thus far is turnovers.
According to ESPN Stats and Information, Georgia tied for eighth nationally with 62 takeaways between 2011-12, second in the SEC only behind LSU's 63. But so far this season, Georgia has just four takeaways -- and two of those came on fumbled punts.
Matthews recorded Georgia's first interception of the season against North Texas with a diving pick to halt a Mean Green drive at the Bulldogs' 5-yard line.
"We've still got a lot of work to do on the back end. We gave up like  passing yards and we got like one pick in the first four games," Georgia sophomore safety Josh Harvey-Clemons said after the LSU game, "so we've got to get more turnovers and get off the field on third down."
Linebacker Amarlo Herrera forced the other turnover when he ran down Shaw at the end of a 9-yard run that would have achieved a South Carolina first down and knocked the ball loose, with Harvey-Clemons diving on the fumble at the Georgia 25.
It was another example of how the Bulldogs' defense has given up plenty of yardage -- Georgia ranks 11th in the SEC and 69th nationally with an average of 403.8 yards allowed per game -- but it has made just enough clutch plays to help Aaron Murray and the offense put away some extremely talented opponents.
Georgia's defenders understand that they have been the weak link thus far, and they're tired of accepting that reality, but the Bulldogs haven't paid too heavy of a price yet while they learn on the job. Although the results have been uneven thus far, they remain confident that their early growing pains are paving the way for a much more productive defense as the season progresses.
"I feel like we're in a position where we recognize what we can do," Jenkins said. "We're sort of developing that swagger as a defense as a whole. We just need to keep that swagger going continuously so we can stop relying on the offense. I know I really hate it. It's a great asset, but I don't want to have to rely on the offense ... when we should be playing better."