Coming off a game that was little more than a glorified scrimmage, Georgia is getting serious again.
The No. 12 Bulldogs face Tennessee on Saturday, the first of seven straight Southeastern Conference games that will likely determine if this season lives up to expectations — or turns out to be a huge disappointment.
"We've just got to win each game we play," linebacker Amarlo Herrera said with a sly grin. "That's it. Simple."
Even though they are already behind in the SEC East race after a loss at South Carolina, the Bulldogs (2-1, 0-1) know that a perfect mark over the next two months will give them a good shot at reaching the conference championship game in Atlanta.
The 13th-ranked Gamecocks (3-1, 2-1) may hold a tiebreaker edge over Georgia, but they already lost to Texas A&M and have tough road games remaining against No. 5 Auburn and former powerhouse Florida.
"It still looks wide open to me," Georgia coach Mark Richt said Tuesday. "Now, if we don't win Saturday, it won't be very wide open for us. But I think everybody feels that way. I doubt anything will be settled until there are maybe one or two games to go."
Georgia, which routed Troy 66-0 last Saturday, holds a scheduling edge over South Carolina.
While the teams have seven common opponents within the league, the lone difference is a big one — the Bulldogs will face Arkansas, coming off a 3-9 season, while the Gamecocks already faced No. 6 Texas A&M, which romped to a 52-28 victory in the season opener at Columbia. Also, Georgia gets Auburn between the hedges, while South Carolina must face the defending SEC champion in Auburn.
"Any time you lose that first one, your back is truly against the wall," Richt said. "We're thinking we have no margin for error, and even if we win every game we're not sure if we'll have control over our own destiny. When you don't have that, all you can do is battle like mad and hope that you get it."
Georgia begins its SEC run against Tennessee (2-1), which is still in rebuilding mode under second-year coach Butch Jones. The Vols opened the season by beating lightweights Utah State and Arkansas State, but their weaknesses were exposed two weeks ago in a 34-10 loss at fourth-ranked Oklahoma.
"Our young football team is going to find out what life is in the SEC with the grind that we are about to embark on," said Jones, whose Vols were off last week in preparation for their conference opener.
The Bulldogs nearly lost to the Vols a year ago, prevailing 34-31 in overtime. Georgia scored the tying touchdown with 5 seconds remaining in regulation, and a turnover in the extra period set up the winning field goal. But the cost of victory was high — running back Keith Marshall and receiver Justin Scott-Wesley both sustained season-ending injuries, and Georgia lost four of its last eight games.
After Saturday's game against the Vols, here's the rest of the SEC slate for the Bulldogs:
— Vanderbilt (home) dropped its first two games by a combined 78-10 score and barely beat UMass. The most promising performance by the Commodores was last weekend, a 48-34 loss to South Carolina.
— Missouri (road) is the defending SEC East champ and beat Georgia last year in Athens. But the Tigers lost a number of key players and were upset by Big Ten lightweight Indiana 31-27.
— Arkansas (road) has already matched last season's win total, including a victory over Texas Tech from the Big 12. We'll know for sure if the Razorbacks have improved after they face Texas A&M on Saturday.
— Florida (neutral site) has lost three straight to the Bulldogs in the famed "Cocktail Party" rivalry, but only by a combined 15 points. This year's Gators barely beat Kentucky and were blown out last week by No. 3 Alabama, 42-21.
— Kentucky (road) has lost 17 straight SEC games, a stretch that includes a 59-17 loss to Georgia last year.
— And finally, Auburn, on Nov. 15, the game that very well could determine if Georgia returns to the SEC championship game for the third time in four years.
"I don't think you can say anybody is a totally dominant team that's going to blaze a trail and kick everybody's rear ends," Richt said. "Everybody's got a challenge. The home field may mean more this season than other seasons. We'll see how it goes."
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