Loss to Clemson won’t define Georgia’s season (UPDATED)

They lost. But this isn’t even four years ago when the Bulldogs were body-slammed in the season opener at Oklahoma State — the year after those lopsided defeats to Alabama and Florida and the home loss to Georgia Tech — and the grumbling in Athens had started to grow.

They lost. But if there are seasons when the masses believe they can safely speculate that one game might define a season, Saturday’s 38-35 loss to Clemson wasn’t one of them. The Bulldogs simply are not as good a team as Clemson right now. Not without the suspended strong safety, Josh Harvey-Clemons. Not without several injured players from the secondary. Not without wide receiver Malcolm Mitchell (who left early with a knee injury and didn’t return) or running back Todd Gurley (who left for an extended stretch with a quad injury).

Clemson is good. Clemson was at home. Clemson had no significant injuries or suspensions coming into this game. So put the grand proclamations on hold for a little while. So many tried that two years ago when Georgia dropped the first two games of the season and then climbed out of a grave, reeling off 10 consecutive wins.

“I don’t see anybody in there ready to jump off a bridge,” coach Mark Richt said afterward.

Was it all great? No. Georgia showed some protection issues, particularly on the left side of the line. They committed nine penalties and had two turnovers: a fumble and an interception each by quarterback Aaron Murray, although he otherwise played great, completing 20 for 29 for 323 yards despite being sacked four times and hurried and smacked often.

The biggest issue was what was expected to be the biggest issue. The defense.

“A couple of plays got away from us,” Richt said. “We did some good things, but we did some things that will get you beat.”

When asked a followup question about the absences, he said, “I don’t want to call anybody out. Everybody has injuries. Everybody has issues. We played the best that we had available at the time. I appreciate all of the players’ effort. We just weren’t good enough.”

What is it mean for the remainder of the season? Possibly little, although that depends on the health of Mitchell (who suffered a possibly serious knee injury while celebrating Gurley’s 75-yard touchdown run) and improvement by the offensive line and defense.

Now, if South Carolina comes into Sanford Stadium next week and issues a pounding similar to last year’s meeting in Columbia, it might be time to re-evaluate.

Georgia led 21-14 in the second quarter after scoring touchdowns on three consecutive possessions. They fell behind, but tied the score in the third at 28-28 on Gurley’s second touchdown from 12 yards out. But the defense tired. Clemson drove to a go-ahead field goal late in the third quarter, and quarterback Tajh Boyd engineered an 87-yard touchdown drive in four and a half minutes into the fourth, capped by a 9-yard pass to tight end Stanton Seckinger with 7:40 left in the game.

That really was it. The Dogs scored a late touchdown with 1:19 left. But it was window dressing.

One loss can sometimes define a team or a season. But not this one.

That wasn’t necessarily the case in the 24-10 loss at Oklahoma State in 2009. Doubt began to surround the program, in part because of the hangover from lopsided losses to Alabama and Florida in 2o08 after the Bulldogs had been ranked No. 1. A team that had been projected for a possible national championship, or at least a BCS bowl, ended the year in the Capital One Bowl in Orlando.

Grumbling grew louder in 2011 after the 34-21 loss to Boise State. That was in part because of the backdrop of the Dogs going 6-7 overall in the previous season and 7-9 in the SEC over the previous two. But the Dogs could confidently go into the Clemson game knowing that regardless of the result, they would still be in a good position to attain all of their goals.

That theoretically was true in 2009 and 2011, it just didn’t seem as realistic then as it does now.

“I think there’s a level of confidence about the future, not just the current team but especially looking forward,” athletic director Greg McGarity said before the game. “There are 10 seniors on this team, so obviously the bulk of the team will be with us for a couple of years. So there’s a level of confidence that we’re doing a lot of good things, and we’re probably working harder as a program than ever before.”

Working harder?

“The noise in our program, as far as the off-the-field issues, has been minimized,” McGarity said. “There’s a level of leadership that has really taken control of this team among the players. Any time you have strong leadership in the clubhouse, it’s good for the underclassmen moving forward.”

We’ll see how they all move forward next week.

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