TUSCALOOSA, Ala. — The Georgia football team already has been counted.
Saturday is the day for the men on the team to stand up.
Underdogs by 3 1/2 points Saturday against No. 22 Alabama, No. 7 Georgia has been accused for a month as being unworthy of a top 10 ranking.
This week the challenge was stated in terms every football player can understand. Pat Dye, the former Georgia player and former Auburn coach, told an Alabama radio audience “I don’t believe Georgia’s man enough to beat Alabama.’’
With those words, definition was cast for Saturday’s 3:30 p.m. ET nationally elevised game at Bryant-Denny Stadium.
Alabama (4-1 overall, 1-0 Southeastern Conference) plays the kind of old-school, smash-mouth football that a coach like Dye can appreciate. If Alabama proves to be too physical for Georgia (4-0 overall, 1-0 SEC), then the Bulldogs will have to bear the resulting drop in the polls and “not man enough’’ insults.
But Georgia, the only undefeated team in the SEC, also has a great opportunity to earn respect. If it can win for the first time in Tuscaloosa and move to 5-0 for the first time since 1982, Georgia will earn a label of legitimacy that will carry through to future big games, including next week’s visit from Tennessee.
Is this a statement game for Georgia?
“Everybody is going to be watching,’’ said Georgia coach Mark Richt. “Everybody is going to have an opinion on it, one way or the other. It would be nice to play well.’’
Richt has downplayed the comments from Dye, at least in public. He says there are more important reasons for Georgia players to be up for Saturday’s game.
“I think they’re going to be excited to play this game because it’s Alabama, because we’re at Alabama, because it’s national TV and because it’s a conference game,’’ Richt said. “There’s plenty of motivation.’’
Alabama is prohibited by NCAA sanctions from winning the conference championship or playing in a bowl game. The Tide can’t even be ranked in the coaches poll, but it moved into the AP Top 25 after an mpressive 30-12 win at Arkansas last week.
Coach Dennis Franchione’s team already has proved it can win without two seniors — running back Ahmaad Galloway and quarterback Tyler Watts.
Galloway’s college career ended with a knee injury against Southern Miss on Sept. 21. The offense kept moving as two other backs — Shaud Williams (119 yards) and Santonio Beard (134 yards) — topped the 100-yard rushing mark against Arkansas.
Georgia’s defense, led by senior linebackers Boss Bailey and Tony Gilbert, ranks third in the conference and 11th in the nation against the run, allowing an average of 90.5 yards on the ground.
Watts’ sprained foot opened the way for redshirt freshman Brodie Croyle to receive his first career start at Arkansas. Croyle passed for two touchdowns and is the probable starter Saturday.
While Watts gives Alabama more option possibilities, Croyle’s passing potential makes it even more difficult to devise a scheme to stop the Tide’s running game. Croyle was 12 for 24 passing for 285 yards against Arkansas.
“We certainly have felt all along that these are kinds of things (Croyle) can do,’’ Franchione said.
“It was a tribute I think to the offensive staff. ... They came up with a plan that could take advantage of Brodie’s talents and not ask him to do it all himself.’’
Meanwhile, Franchione has had to worry about knee injuries to two more seniors — punter Lane Bearden, who is not expected to play Saturday, and center Alonzo Ephraim, who returned to practice Wednesday.
Bearden has been Alabama’s punter, holder and kickoff specialist. Sophomore Michael Ziifle averaged only 28 yards on two punts against Arkansas. Georgia punt returner Damien Gary had a touchdown return last week against New Mexico State, so Alabama’s punting game could play a key role in field position battles.
Franchione also is concerned about his team’s kickoff coverage as Georgia’s Fred Gibson also has a return for a touchdown this year.
The biggest challenge for Georgia may be to manage a balanced offensive attack. In its only loss of the season, Alabama held No. 3 Oklahoma to minus-23 yards rushing. Alabama leads the SEC in rushing defense and is second in total defense.
The Alabama defensive line features three seniors — Jarret Johnson, Kenny King and Kindal Moorehead — who are on the Outland Trophy watch list.
Georgia boasts an all-senior offensive line, but center Ian Knight is a first-year starter and has struggled in some physical matchups. Senior tackle George Foster will return from a broken wrist suffered before the season to join the playing rotation Saturday.
Center Russ Tanner, who had been competing with Knight for the starting job, is at least a week away from playing as he returns from a hand injury.