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Georgia photo by Tony Walsh / Georgia sophomore inside linebacker Nakobe Dean celebrates a stop against Mississippi State inside Sanford Stadium on Nov. 21.

Minutes after Georgia's 44-21 trampling of Tennessee on Oct. 10, Volunteers quarterback Jarrett Guarantano was asked about a Bulldogs defense that created three second-half turnovers that ignited their 27-0 run after halftime.

The Bulldogs were 3-0 at that point, having allowed just three offensive touchdowns.

"Everybody knows how good the Georgia defense is," Guarantano said. "Every single person who watches college football knows that they have the best defense in college football. We knew that, too."

Georgia led the nation in scoring defense last season, yielding 12.6 points per game, and eight starters returned from that unit. The Bulldogs still have an impressive defense entering Friday's Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl against Cincinnati, but nobody is referring to Georgia as the best in the country.

Not after multiple injuries involving key players, and certainly not after surrendering 85 points to Alabama and Florida, the two programs responsible for keeping the Bulldogs out of a fourth consecutive Southeastern Conference championship game.

"I think we did a pretty good job this season," junior strong safety Christopher Smith said. "Although things didn't go how we wanted all the time, we got better every week. Even though we didn't get the end result we wanted this year, I feel like if we win this game, going into next year we'll have a lot of confidence for a lot of guys.

"This is very important for our team and us going into the future."

Georgia announced Wednesday that the Bulldogs would be wearing black jerseys for a second time this season.

Blanketing the undefeated Bearcats would certainly be a positive final statement for this year's Georgia defense, but it won't erase the painful performances against Crimson Tide quarterback Mac Jones and Gators quarterback Kyle Trask. The Heisman Trophy finalists combined to complete 54 of 75 passes for 891 yards against the Bulldogs, compiling eight touchdowns against just two interceptions.

Redshirt junior cornerback Eric Stokes provided Georgia a rare defensive highlight by intercepting Trask and giving the Bulldogs a brief 21-14 lead early in the second quarter in Jacksonville, but Stokes has elected to opt out of the Peach Bowl to focus on the NFL draft.

Defenders coming and going has been a theme this season for second-year coordinator Dan Lanning, who hasn't had senior safety Richard LeCounte III since a Halloween motorcycle crash after the team returned from a 14-3 triumph at Kentucky resulted in a concussion. Junior nose tackle Jordan Davis suffered an elbow injury in Lexington that sidelined him for more than a month, and senior inside linebacker Monty Rice sustained a foot injury at Alabama on Oct. 17 that limited him the rest of the season. Rice also has elected to sit out the Peach Bowl.

"The one thing that's been an adapting piece for us is the multiplicity of each week not knowing necessarily who you have," Lanning said. "You probably ask guys to know more positions. In turn, that's going to create a little bit more simplicity on one side of the ball. If you have to learn multiple positions and be able to do multiple things, you need to shrink your package to be able to adapt to that.

"I think our guys have done a really good job of getting prepared to play every Saturday despite every once in a while finding out you're not going to get to play. We've focused on technique and fundamentals more than anything, and I think we've tackled really well this year. Our guys have embraced that throughout practice."

Georgia will enter Atlanta's Mercedes-Benz Stadium having allowed 19.9 points and 322.8 yards per game, ranking a close second in the SEC to Alabama (19.5) and Texas A&M (316.6) in those categories this season.

The improved health of Davis up front has been cause for excitement this week — "He makes it a world easier for me the way he eats up those double-teams," sophomore inside linebacker Nakobi Dean said — but only Friday's showdown will reveal whether Bulldogs defenders will have embraced this one last challenge.

"I would like to say that we could go out there and dominate as a defense — don't even let them get by the 50," senior defensive end Malik Herring said. "We would like to have an unstoppable game."

Contact David Paschall at dpaschall@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6524. Follow him on Twitter @DavidSPaschall.

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