Stunned Georgia has off week to regroup following quick free-fall from No. 6 to being unranked
ATHENS, Ga. – There's a new entry on Georgia's lengthy injury list:
In only three weeks, Georgia has dropped from No. 6 to being unranked in The Associated Press Top 25. The stunned Bulldogs (4-3, 3-2 Southeastern Conference) have an off week to assess the damage, attempt to correct mistakes and hope some injured players can heal before their Nov. 2 game against Florida.
"We're going to use this bye week to get healthy and come back," said senior tight end Arthur Lynch. "It's our biggest rival, in my opinion. You beat Florida and you just can build so much momentum from that one win it can catapult us to winning out, hopefully. That's our plan. That's what we're going to try to execute."
Injuries to the Bulldogs' top two running backs and three of their top receivers proved too much to overcome in back-to-back losses to Missouri and Vanderbilt.
Star tailback Todd Gurley, the team's leading rusher even after missing three games with a left ankle sprain, returned to practice this week. Receiver Michael Bennett, who had arthroscopic knee surgery on Oct. 8, has a chance to play against the Gators.
Coach Mark Richt said he still clings to the dream of a spot in the SEC championship game. The Bulldogs have not played like a championship contender in their brutal October, which began with an overtime win at Tennessee before the back-to-back losses.
Georgia dropped one spot in the poll following the win at Tennessee and fell to No. 15 after the loss to Missouri.
"We still have a chance to win the East and I'm sure that's what (Georgia and Florida) are still fighting desperately for," Richt said. "We know there's no margin for error. We can be perfect from here on out and still not get there, but there's still a lot more of our season to be played.
"Until it's impossible, then we'll think about another goal, but right now we're focused on still trying to win the East."
When senior quarterback Aaron Murray was surrounded by more playmakers, the Bulldogs could win high-scoring shootouts, including a 44-41 victory over LSU and a 41-30 decision over South Carolina.
Receivers Malcome Mitchell and Justin Scott-Wesley and tailback Keith Marshall have suffered season-ending knee injuries.
Georgia listed 21 players who missed practice or were limited by injuries on Tuesday.
Richt said he hasn't tried to compare the injury list with his other 12 seasons at Georgia.
"I'm not sitting here trying to figure all that out," Richt said. "I'm just trying to figure out who we have left and who's ready to go play."
Gurley rushed for 1,385 yards and 17 touchdowns as a freshman in 2012. He has 450 yards rushing and four touchdowns in four games this season.
Gurley's return to practice Tuesday lifted his teammates' spirits.
"I've said all along Todd is by far the best player in the country when he's healthy," Murray said. "When he is not in there it hurts, not only in the run game but in the pass game, too."
Lynch compared Gurley's impact on a game with two former teammates who became NFL first-round picks.
"I've probably played with two other players who are like him in this sense, Jarvis Jones and A.J. Green, to where he literally impacts everyone else on the field because everyone on defense has to game plan for him specifically," Lynch said.
Freshmen J.J. Green and Brendan Douglas have shared carries at tailback. Douglas lost a fumble near midfield with about 2 minutes remaining in last week's 31-27 loss at Vanderbilt.
"I'm not saying those other two tailbacks haven't done a really good job for us, they have, but Todd is like all three — Keith, J.J. and Brendan — built into one," Lynch said. "That's just not normal. He brings so much emotion and so much energy into the offense from an emotional standpoint. His skillset has definitely been missed."
Georgia also has missed the power runs of Gurley (6-1, 232).
"I saw him and I was like 'Goodness gracious, that dude is huge,'" Murray said.
The injuries to so many top skill position players exposed glaring weaknesses on defense and special teams. Georgia ranks 13th in the SEC and 100th in the nation with its average of 33.3 points allowed per game.
Key miscues on Georgia's punt coverage and punt return teams helped the Bulldogs blow a 27-14 third-quarter lead against Vanderbilt. Damian Swann fumbled a punt in the third quarter to set up a Vanderbilt touchdown. Punter Collin Barber had to fall on a high snap at the Georgia 13 to set up the Commodore's go-ahead touchdown in the fourth quarter.
The off week leaves players extra time to contemplate the latest loss.
"The bye week comes when we have a bad taste in our mouth," said offensive guard Chris Burnette. "At the same time, I think it comes at a good time with all the injuries we have."