ATHENS, Ga. - When the Georgia Bulldogs dropped their first three Southeastern Conference games this season, they knew there was hope around the corner.
Star receiver A.J. Green missed those defeats while sitting out a four-game NCAA suspension for selling his Independence Bowl jersey for $1,000. His return was expected to instantly enhance the offense and has, as evidenced by the Bulldogs scoring 68 points the past two weeks.
So who has been the happiest since his return?
"Me," offensive coordinator Mike Bobo said quickly with a laugh. "I think the whole football team is, just because he's a very humble individual. He was definitely hurt by what happened and being out those four games, and he's really driven right now for us to have a special year despite the way we started."
Green returned to the lineup Oct. 2 at Colorado, amassing seven receptions for 119 yards and two touchdowns, including one so acrobatic it was a fixture on highlight shows. The Bulldogs lost 29-27, but they bounced back last week with a 41-14 win over Tennessee in which the 6-foot-4, 212-pound junior from Summerville, S.C., had six catches for 96 yards and a score.
The Bulldogs host Vanderbilt on Saturday, and Commodores coach Robbie Caldwell said his defensive staff is paying closer attention to some Georgia game tapes compared to others.
"They watched all of them but were especially attentive to the last two. Let's put it that way," Caldwell said. "A.J. is quite a target. We've faced him before, so they're familiar with him. We knew this day would come."
Green had three receptions for 95 yards in last year's 34-10 win at Vandy, including a career-long 65-yard score.
His return the past two weeks has resulted in opposing defenses changing how they defend the Bulldogs. More attention is being placed on Green, which has opened opportunities for other receivers and the tight ends.
"I think the fact that A.J. is drawing the double teams that we thought he would, the tight ends are definitely benefiting from it," head coach Mark Richt said. "There have been more coverages that are just linebacker-coverage related. A.J. being there is the tight end's best friend."
Said receiver Tavarres King: "You've got to put two or three guys over there on that cat. I think we're all happy. I think high-fives go all around to have No. 8 back."
Quarterback Aaron Murray has benefited as well, upgrading an already quality start to the season by completing 33 of 52 passes the past two weeks for 487 yards and five touchdowns. Murray believes a lot of his recent success is due to Green drawing the attention of a cornerback and safety, but Green is quick to credit Murray.
"I think it can be special the way we end the season, especially the way Aaron is playing," Green said. "I said at the SEC Media Days that Aaron was going to surprise some people."
Although Murray's numbers have improved since Green's return, the biggest statistical difference has come from Orson Charles and Aron White. The two tight ends were a focal point for defenses when Green was out and combined on just six catches for 66 yards.
They have combined on eight catches for 134 yards the past two weeks.
"In the first four games that A.J. missed, there was a concerted effort to get them the ball," Bobo said, "but the coverage never took it there with the coverages we were given. Now that A.J. is back, there have been a lot of opportunities opening up for them because of the threat he is out there."
So who's the happiest to have A.J. back?
"Georgia," Charles said. "Pretty much Georgia."