LITTLE ROCK, Ark. (AP) — Looking back, Hutson Mason isn't so sure an early season loss to South Carolina wasn't the catalyst Georgia needed to play up to the level it thought it could.
If nothing else, the Bulldogs quarterback knows he and his teammates are far more appreciative now of their return to the national spotlight following their fifth win in a row — 45-32 over Arkansas on Saturday.
It was the second dominating road win in a row for No. 9 Georgia (6-1, 4-1 Southeastern Conference), which is now in firm control of the SEC East Division.
The Bulldogs have a one-game lead over Missouri with three conference games remaining, and they already hold the head-to-head tiebreaker over the second-place Tigers thanks to last week's shutout victory in Columbia.
"Anything in life seems to mean a little bit more to you in life when you lose it and get it back," Mason said. "So, we really know how precious that is, to be able to control your own destiny ... If we keep this train on track, we can do something special, and I think most guys understand. It's special to be on the road to Atlanta."
Georgia has climbed back in the SEC championship and College Football Playoff discussion despite playing its last two games without suspended running back Todd Gurley. Even without the once-Heisman hopeful, the Bulldogs have put together their two most complete performances of the seasons.
Coach Mark Richt said Georgia has treated the Gurley suspension like an injury, and the running back's understudy — Nick Chubb — more than lived up to the leading role on Saturday.
The freshman had a career day against the Razorbacks, rushing for 202 yards and a pair of touchdowns on 30 carries. His 43-yard touchdown burst through the heart of the Arkansas defense put the Bulldogs up 24-6, helping fuel a 31-0 second quarter that lead the way to a 38-6 halftime lead.
"I think we're becoming a good team," Richt said. "I'm not really sure we're a good team yet, but we're getting there."
While Chubb once again earned the headlines, topping even his 174 total yard performance against Missouri, it was the continued emergence of the defense that has Georgia suddenly at the center of any SEC championship talk.
The Bulldogs forced four Arkansas turnovers, including a 54-yard fumble return for a touchdown by Dominick Sanders in the second quarter. Georgia has now forced nine turnovers in its last two games, which Richt credited to the secondary and defensive coordinator, Jeremy Pruitt.
Richt said the Bulldogs called a softer, less aggressive approach early in the season — particularly against South Carolina — in order to make the defense easier to understand for the youthful secondary. That changed following the 38-35 loss to the Gamecocks.
"I think Jeremy was like, 'Whether we're ready or not, we've got to play ball a certain way,'" Richt said. "Little by little, guys have improved, I think."
Georgia's next test comes after a bye week against reeling Florida, which suffered a humiliating 42-13 loss at home to Missouri on Saturday.
Despite the Gators woes, Bulldogs linebacker Leonard Floyd said he isn't about to overlook the Georgia rival when the teams play in Jacksonville on Nov. 1.
Nor is he about to forget how far Georgia has come after its early loss — or how far it still hopes to go.
"Basically, they're in the way," Floyd said of the Gators. "They're in the way of us getting to the SEC championship."