Has Georgia defense improved? We’re about to find out

In its past two games, the Georgia defense allowed 20 points in one win and six in another, which would generally indicate a turnaround on the level of a post-spinach Popeye or a post-Braves Cobb County (pre-Braves stadium talks: Cobb furloughs teachers! Post-Braves stadium talks: “Oh look, we just found $450 million in tax revenue!”).

But look closer. Can we really believe Georgia is that much better now?

The Bulldogs’ two wins came against a Florida team that ranks 105th nationally in scoring and 111th (and last in the SEC) in total offense, and an Appalachian State team that is, well, Appalachian State.

So the fact they have allowed 13 points per game in the past two games after allowing 33.3 in the previous seven requires an asterisk … the size of a moose.

We’ll know in a few days how much progress has been made. Georgia faces Auburn on Saturday and Georgia Tech on Nov. 30. Both offenses are run-heavy and pass-light, which plays into the Bulldogs’ relative strength and diminishes the chances of more secondary mayhem. It’s one reason oddsmakers have made the No. 7 and 9-1 Tigers a relatively modest favorite (3 1/2 points) over the No. 25 and 6-3 Dogs.

The remainder of the season will decide more than bowl slots (and potentially, in Athens nirvana, the SEC East). It also somewhat is a referendum on defensive coordinator Todd Grantham.

Grantham will have one year ($850,000) remaining on his contract after this season. With the backdrop of a relatively unimpressive tenure — because even the 2012 defense underachieved, given the amount of NFL talent on the roster — it’s doubtful UGA will extend his deal. That leaves three scenarios: 1) Grantham leaves on his own for another job; 2) Grantham gets fired; 3) Georgia brings him back, but makes him prove he’s worth keeping beyond 2014.

It’s easy to forget, but after the firing of the oft-maligned Willie Martinez, Grantham was no higher than Richt’s fourth choice to replace him. The school attempted to lure Bud Foster (Virginia Tech), John Chavis (LSU) and Ellis Johnson (then at South Carolina), but all three said no, instead using the offers to leverage themselves for raises. Grantham/his agent have done a masterful job making people believe he might leave in the past two years, potentially going back to the NFL. But he’s not in a position of negotiating strength now.

He can help himself these next few weeks, starting in the Auburn game. Richt said Tuesday, “I just think everybody is playing their responsibilities better. I think we’re tackling better. We’ve come together and made improvement as a whole.”

Otherwise, he seemed guarded when asked about the defense, and seemingly everything else. Since the high of the win over LSU in Week 4, this has ceased being a season for grand proclamations. Injuries, a home loss to Missouri and a punch to the gut at Vanderbilt followed. They fell from No. 6 in the rankings to off the radar.

“When you drop out of the Top 25, you drop out of the national conscience to a certain degree,” Richt said.

Defensive end Ray Drew initially balked at commenting on the significance of the Dogs’ defensive improvement the past two games. First, he gave a programmed response: “Just looking at it statistically in the last few games, I know that things have been better. We’re going to move forward, and then we’re going to be fine.”

Then, he laughed (probably sensing the eye rolls).

Me: Is that you not answering the question?

Drew: “Yes, exactly.”

Me: Do you wonder yourself how much progress has been made?

Drew: “I don’t know how to word that.”

Me: Honestly?

Drew (after long pause): “I do feel that we’ve done better. But this weekend will tell a lot because they are a stronger opponent than we’ve seen offensively in the past few weeks. So this will be a tell-tale game.”

Drew believes the biggest turnaround has been with Georgia’s freshmen, many of whom were out of position and/or missed tackles in the first several games.

“You come in here off of recruiting, you’re on top of the world and then you realize it’s a completely different level, a completely different beast,” Drew said. “Once we got everyone settled down and realized where we were at things began to take root.”

Senior nose tackle Garrison Smith echoed the sentiment: “You have to expect (mistakes) when you’re playing a whole lot of freshman. They want to make every tackle. They want to make every play. They want to get on the highlight reel. But they cause other mistakes because they’re not where they’re supposed to be. It’s just growing pains.”

As to whether that’s in the past, it’s probably best to hold off on conclusions for a few weeks.