Bulldogs keep rising in the East

Bulldogs' ranking, routs suggest divisional shift

Georgia senior outside linebacker Lorenzo Carter celebrates with fans after Saturday's 42-7 win over Florida at EverBank Field in Jacksonville.
photo Georgia running back Sony Michel smiles at fans as he leaves the field after Georgia's 42-7 win over Florida in an NCAA college football game, Saturday, Oct. 28, 2017, in Jacksonville, Fla. Michel led Georgia in rushing with 137 yards and two touchdowns. (AP Photo/John Raoux)

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. - The Georgia Bulldogs lost to Tennessee and Florida last season in very different ways, falling to the Volunteers on a Hail Mary as time expired and succumbing to the Gators due to an inept rushing attack.

Georgia has swept the Vols and Gators this year in similar fashion, dominating its longtime Southeastern Conference Eastern Division rivals by the eye-popping combined count of 83-7. The Bulldogs defeated Tennessee 41-0 late last month, handing the Vols their worst loss ever inside Neyland Stadium, and routed Florida 42-7 on Saturday for their largest win over the Gators since 1982.

"You never really imagine something like that," Bulldogs outside linebacker Lorenzo Carter said early Saturday evening at EverBank Field. "You just prepare yourself to come out and fight. Those are two great teams with great players who are going to give it their all as well on both sides of the ball.

"We just came out and played our brand of football and didn't look at the scoreboard."

The Bulldogs improved to 8-0 overall and 5-0 in SEC play with their rare dismantling of the Gators. Those two programs were in very different worlds Sunday, with Georgia moving up to No. 2 in both major polls behind Alabama and Florida announcing the dismissal of coach Jim McElwain.

Georgia's 76-point combined margin of victory is easily the largest in program history over Tennessee and Florida, who have been the biggest roadblocks for the Bulldogs since the league went to divisional play in 1992. They entered this season just 11-14 against the Vols and 6-19 against the Gators since 1992, and they went the first 19 years of divisional play without sweeping that tandem.

"We try not to think about the past, but the past got us right for going into these games this year," senior safety Dominick Sanders said. "Last year hit us in the heart, and we kind of got pissed off. "

The Bulldogs opened Sunday as 22.5-point favorites for this Saturday's home game against South Carolina.

Georgia's abrupt uprising in the SEC East during Kirby Smart's second season as head coach is reminiscent of what Alabama accomplished in Nick Saban's second season with the Crimson Tide in 2008. The Tide went from a 7-6 record in Saban's debut year in Tuscaloosa to a 12-0 regular season that resulted in the departures of two rival coaches who once owned Alabama - Tennessee's Phillip Fulmer, who topped the Tide seven straight times (1995-2001) but was fired during the 2008 season, and Auburn's Tommy Tuberville, who won six consecutive Iron Bowls (2002-07) but resigned after a 36-0 loss to the Tide.

With McElwain gone and Tennessee's Butch Jones potentially next, Smart is having a similar effect to some degree, though he declined an opportunity in Jacksonville to discuss the new pecking order among traditional SEC East powers.

"I'm worried about South Carolina, to be honest with you," Smart said. "The focus is on the Gamecocks and what we can do to get ready for them. That's really all we're worried about, because they've got a good football team."

South Carolina improved to 6-2 overall and 4-2 in SEC play with a 34-27 win over Vanderbilt this past Saturday, so Smart does have his reasons for keeping his Bulldogs moving forward. His players, however, didn't mind discussing this year's dominance of Tennessee and Florida, with some of them offering no surprise whatsoever.

"Given how hard we worked in the offseason, this was expected," senior tailback Sony Michel said. "We built throughout the offseason and during this season, and we even built in our off week. A lot of guys have off weeks. We have work weeks. When Coach said it was a work week, nobody complained."

Said sophomore safety J.R. Reed: "We expect to beat teams like this. They're both great teams, but we work hard every day to beat teams like this."

Contact David Paschall at dpaschall@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6524.