KNOXVILLE, Tenn. - The schedule will show that there's still plenty of work yet to do before Georgia can claim success to the 2011 football campaign.
But in the event the Bulldogs do, Saturday night's 20-12 win over Tennessee will no doubt figure greatly into making it so.
With the win, Georgia improved to 4-2 overall, 3-1 in the SEC while Tennessee drops to 3-2 and 0-2.
"It's a big deal, we're excited about that," head coach Mark Richt said. "I guess we're tied with South Carolina, but losing the tie-breaker. We've just got to keep winning. We've got to keep winning and hope somebody can help us, but we're in the race and that's exciting for us, it's exciting for the fans and it's exciting for me personally."
It was certainly an exuberant Bulldog lockerroom which could be heard overheard celebrating before some of the players were led out for post-game interviews.
"We're just trying to prove to the country that we can go out and play with any team in the country," junior linebacker Mike Gilliard, which was part of a Bulldog defense which held Tennessee to minus-20 yards rushing. "This is a huge win; it was an SEC East win, a win at Tennessee in a very hostile environment. It doesn't get much better."
There was certainly a lot to like.
After playing to a 6-6 halftime tie, Georgia used a pair of touchdown runs by Isaiah Crowell in the third quarter to put the game away, before relying on its defense to show the Vols down the rest of the way, despite a fourth-quarter touchdown run of 1 yard by backup quarterback Mike Simms.
The extra-point was blocked by safety Shawn Williams, and following an unsuccessful onside kick, Georgia was able to run out the clock.
"We're happy," said Richt, who won his 100th game as the Bulldog head coach. "I'm very humbled at the way the players and coaches responded to that victory toward me. One hundred victories is kind of hard to believe, actually. But these victories belong to everybody, everybody who helps us do our thing."
Unfortunately, the victory did not come without a cost.
During a 71-yard reception in the third quarter, freshman wide receiver Malcolm Mitchell said he felt his hamstring "pop." After the game, Richt he "hopes" the Valdosta native will be back in time for the Florida game at month's end.
Offensively, despite a myriad of bumps and bruises and a defense intent on loading up to stop the run, Crowell led Georgia with 58 yards on 19 carries and scored both of the Bulldogs' touchdowns while quarterback Aaron Murray overcame a slow start to compete 15 of 25 passes for 227 yards and no interceptions.
Mitchell caught three passes for a career high 126 yards before leaving with his injury.
Blair Walsh accounted for the rest of Georgia's scoring with field goals of 35 and 28 yards with no misses.
Defensively, the Bulldogs limited the Vols to 270 yards, 251 on the arm of quarterback Tyler Bray who completed 18 of 33 passes before leaving in the fourth quarter with an injured thumb.
But it was Tennessee's complete lack of a running game that had Vol coach Derek Dooley singing the blues, especially after losing top rusher Tauren Poole with an injured hamstring.
"I thought we would be OK coming into the season," Dooley said. "I thought we would be doing better than what we we're doing against Florida and Georgia. We haven't run the ball yet against two good defenses yet, and that's disappointing."
With the halftime score knotted at 6 and Tennessee with the ball to start the third quarter, the Bulldogs needed an early break and got it, when a high snap to Bray in the shotgun forced the Vols to punt from their 5.
After taking over at the 38, the Bulldogs would take advantage, driving to the Tennessee 6 when the Vol linebacker Daryl Vereen was called for a defensive hold on tight end Orson Charles giving Georgia a first-and-goal at the 2.
It took three straight attempts, but on the third Crowell found a small gap and shot into the end zone for the game's first touchdown from 2-yards out with 8:19 to go in the third quarter.
The turning point in the game would occur on the Vols' next possession.
On third-and-17, Bray dumped a pass tailback Marlin Lane, who caught the football, but appeared to be down when he suddenly bounced up and continued on his way for what looked like a game-tying 66-yard touchdown.
But hold on.
Upon further review, it was ruled that Lane's backside had indeed hit the ground at the Vol 47, forcing a punt which Brandon Boykin fair caught at the 7-yard line.
On the very next play, Murray faked the handoff and lobbed the ball to a streaking Mitchell across the middle of the field for a 71-yard completion to the Tennessee 22.
One play later, it was Crowell again, this time from 17 yards out to put Georgia in front 20-6.
For a moment, it appeared that the Bulldogs were about to pile on some more points, but after reaching the Vol 31-yard line, three straight holding calls helped force the Bulldogs into a fourth-and-58 before eventually punting the ball.
Richt showed some nerves during the Bulldogs' first drive of the game, which resulted in a 35-yard field goal by Walsh.
Twice during the drive, Georgia went for it on fourth down, the first time from its own 41 when Crowell took a pitch around the left side for an 11-yard gain.
Later in the drive it was Crowell again, this time picking up three yards for the first, despite a late fumble which fortuitously bounded out of bounds at the Volunteer 17.
But the Bulldogs would manage just two more yards over the next three plays and would up settling for Walsh's seventh field goal in 13 tries.
The score stayed that until midway through the second quarter when the Vols, who earlier missed a 51-yard field goal, converted a 28-yarder by Michael Palardy with 6:46 on the clock.
Tennessee used a fourth-and-8 completion by Bray to extend the drive, which saw the Vols eventually get a first-and-goal at the seven before Georgia's defense stiffened, forcing the field goal.
There were more to come.
On Georgia's ensuing possession, the Bulldogs looked to be headed for the games' first touchdown when Murray hit Mitchell with a play-action pass for 43 yards, giving the Bulldogs a first down at the Tennessee 7-yard line.
But once again, that's right where the offense stalled, forcing Walsh to reach for a 23-yard field goal to put Georgia up 6-3 with 1:38 to go in the half.
That would be plenty of time for the Vols to tie the game as Tennessee drove 46 yards on eight plays, with Palardy kicking a career-best 43-yard field as the horn sounded for halftime.
"We're feeling pretty good right now," Murray said. "There were still some mistakes, but I thought we also did a lot of things well. We going to enjoy this tonight, but it's back to work on Monday."
Georgia returns to action next Saturday night at Vanderbilt. Kickoff is set for 7 p.m.
Anthony Dasher is the managing editor for UGASports
and he can be reached via email at [email protected]