With Kirby Smart’s Dawgs headed back to Atlanta after winning their second straight SEC East title, again going undefeated in their division, Georgia’s preseason goal of returning to the College Football Playoff remains on the board.
Yes, UGA’s Dec. 1 rematch with Alabama at Mercedes-Benz Stadium could fall into the be-careful-what-you-wish-for category — considering the juggernaut that Tua Tagovailoa and the Crimson Tide have become since nipping Georgia in overtime in last year’s national championship — but, as Smart said after Saturday’s game, his program doesn’t shy away from high expectations.
And, if Georgia is going to build a dynasty, as Bulldog Nation fervently hopes, it’s almost always going to have to go through the Tide to get where it wants to end up.
Since Georgia was just about a unanimous preseason pick to repeat as SEC East champ, some might view the result of Saturday’s winner-goes-to-Atlanta game against the Kentucky Wildcats as simply living up to expectations.
But, when you factor in how many key players were lost from last year’s team loaded with NFL talent, how banged up this group of Dawgs is, and how discombobulated they looked three weeks ago when they got a rude reality check in Baton Rouge, clinching the East remains something worth celebrating.
Plus, this one feels different. I wouldn’t go so far as to say this one just means more (to put an SEC marketing slant on it), but as Smart noted, it was more of a battle for the Dawgs than last year.
“I think last year maybe it was easier with the experience we had,” said Smart, who’s playing more freshmen and sophomores than any other SEC program. “The veteran kids we had [in 2017], the games seemed a little easier.”
Said quarterback Jake Fromm: “This one has been more of a battle. A lot of people doubted us. … Last year we were blowing teams out. That’s not the way it’s been this year.”
This time, tailback Elijah Holyfield said, ““we had to come up here and come into hostile territory and win it ourselves. It feels really special and we just look forward to finishing out the season the right way and getting to Atlanta.”
If last year’s team, with its first-round NFL draft picks and senior leadership truly was one of college football’s elites, this year’s Dawgs seem to be more of a blue-collar assemblage, not yet the smooth operation that last year’s team was most of the time.
So far, though, they’re even with last year’s bunch (though they have one conference game, against age-old rival Auburn, still to go, along with a couple of season-ending nonconference matches).
On what was billed by the TV networks as Statement Saturday, Smart’s Dawgs seemed intent on making a statement to the college football world as they secured a return trip to the SEC Championship with their emphatic runaway win over Kentucky in Lexington.
With the media hype machine (including Saturday’s “SEC Nation” pregame show from Lexington, a two-hour commercial for UK) having spent the past week touting running back Benny Snell Jr., linebacker Josh Allen and their fellow Wildcats as the Next Big Thing, you couldn’t blame the defending SEC champs for feeling a bit disrespected.
The combative Snell, whose mouth runs almost as fast as his legs, came into Saturday’s contest leading the SEC in rushing at 116.9 yards a game. That worried a lot of Dawgs fans, who wondered whether Georgia’s often suspect running defense would be up to the challenge.
Snell yeah! The Wildcats’ star tailback got just 73 yards on 20 carries as the swarming Georgia defense limited UK to 84 yards on the ground.
And, aside from late in the game when the Dawgs’ defense went what Smart termed “conservative” (and the officials decided to quit calling holding), and Kentucky amassed some meaningless passing yards, the rest of Georgia D looked pretty good, too. The pass rush netted four sacks Saturday after entering the weekend with an SEC-low 10 for the season.
Conversely, Georgia’s running attack had its best game of the season, with D’Andre Swift and Holyfield both topping 100 yards on career-best days, and Swift brought back visions of last year’s SEC Championship win when he burst through for an 83-yard touchdown sprint. Considering that fresh injuries made Georgia’s offensive line even more of a patchwork affair, at times playing three freshmen and two sophomores, the ground game’s showing was even more impressive.
And, while Fromm had less gaudy stats than the week before in Jacksonville, he completed 14 of 20 passes for 113 yards and 1 touchdown. Rising star Jeremiah Holloman was the leading receiver with four for 39 yards, all in the first half, while Riley Ridley caught 3 passes for 37 yards and Swift made 3 catches for 18 yards.
Georgia also returned backup Justin Fields to spot duty Saturday, and the freshman was effective, running 6 times for 26 yards, including a key play late in the game where he converted on third-and-9 to allow the Dawgs to put the game away. (Earlier, Fromm also converted a third down attempt with his legs.)
Against what had been, until Saturday, one of the nation’s top defenses, Georgia amassed a season-high 331 yards on the ground and 444 yards of total offense.
But, this being the 2018 Dawgs, rather than last year’s unit, it wasn’t all smooth sailing, of course. There were a couple of fumbles lost (one was due to a high snap by substitute center Trey Hill after Lamont Gaillard went out with a hyperextended knee, and the other was caused by a bad exchange between Fromm and Swift).
And, Georgia allowed Kentucky to dominate time of possession in the first half, though the Cats could only come up with 3 points by halftime. (The possession numbers improved in the second half, and Georgia finished with 31:25 in the game while Kentucky had the ball for 28:35.)
Also, the Dawgs once again had red zone problems, having to settle for a field goal after whiffing on a couple of tries to push the ball in from the 1-yard line, prompting an upset Smart to yell at someone (presumably playcaller Jim Chaney) over his headset.
After the game, Smart referred to that series as “FUBAR,” which is old military terminology that, cleaned up a bit, means Fouled Up Beyond All Recognition. What was especially surprising about that latest short-yardage failure was that they again didn’t use Fields, who already had converted a third-and-1 earlier.
Overall on the day, Georgia converted seven of its 12 third-down attempts. The Cats were successful on 7 of 13, with several coming late in the game when the Dawgs were in a prevent defense. Kentucky was unsuccessful on its only fourth-down attempt.
Special teams play generally was good, with Mecole Hardman having a 65-yard punt return and Rodrigo Blankenship his usual reliable self. Jake Carmarda only had to punt once, and it was a 55-yarder. The only hiccup was on the one kickoff that Kentucky brought out of the end zone, with Georgia’s kick coverage again proving spotty, giving up a 36-yard return.
In addition to the Dawgs clinching another division title, the most positive takeaways from the game are that Georgia’s very young lineup seems to be growing and getting better, peaking at the right time, particularly in the running game. If the offensive line finally gets healthy, the rushing attack should be pretty awesome by the time the Dawgs meet Alabama.
In the meantime, three games remain, and two of them (Auburn and Georgia Tech) are annual clashes with traditional rivals that could prove tricky.
As Smart noted after the game, “It never comes easy.”