ATHENS — Kirk Herbstreit remembers Coach Kirby Smart’s Georgia football program being in this position before, back during the 2017 season, and the ESPN College GameDay star recalls how the Bulldogs “came out swinging.”
Will No. 7-ranked Georgia respond that way again when it tackles No. 9-ranked Florida at 3:30 p.m. on Saturday in Jacksonville, Fla.?
The Bulldogs (6-1, 4-1 SEC) play the Gators (6-1, 4-1) in an SEC East Division showdown. UGA was off last week following a 36-16 loss at LSU.
“The big thing I would look at with Georgia is how they respond, really,” Herbstreit told DawgNation. “You look at their schedule, and they went to South Carolina, and at that time we thought it might have been a significant win, but it turned out South Carolina is not a Top 25 team, so their first real challenge was their game in Baton Rouge, and clearly it didn’t go well.
“I would say their energy coming off of a loss is key, and the way I believe their defense will respond to that loss and performance, knowing Kirby the way I do.”
Herbstreit said the Georgia program is still on the rise, but this season is proof the Bulldogs haven’t arrived yet.
“What I’ve learned from watching Georgia, they are still in Year Three, they are still developing this program, they’re not yet where Alabama is, and they’re going to be, but they’re not there yet,” Herbstreit said. “We all watched Georgia last year ,and we respect Kirby Smart from his days as a coordinator with Nick Saban …. he’s been recruiting his tail off, he gets to the national championship his second year.
“And I think we looked at the losses of Sony Michel and Nick Chubb, and the defensive players, Roquan Smith, and Davin Bellamy and Lorenzo Carter, and we thought, you know what? The way he’s recruiting right now and his background knowing this system, this thing is on autopilot every year, just put Georgia down, they’re gonna be playing Alabama in Atlanta every year, the winner of that game is going to the national title,” Herbstreit said. “I think a lot of us just kind of jumped to that conclusion.”
Herbstreit said the loss at LSU was proof of how far the Bulldogs have left to grow.
“The example of them going to Baton Rouge reminds me this is still a young program, and they seem to play better when people doubt them,” Herbstreit said. “They’ve not yet learned how to play as the team being chased.
“Alabama, it doesn’t matter, Alabama is Alabama, and there’s only one team in the country that’s like that,” he said. “Georgia, we wanted to put right next Alabama to be that team, and what we learned throughout this year is they looked OK, not dominant, then sometimes dominant, then the next week, they looked just ok.”
Herbstreit drew the parallel to how the Bulldogs responded after losing at Auburn last season.
“I think you go back to last year, they lose at Jordan Hare (Stadium in Auburn) and everyone is like ‘Omigosh, Jake Fromm is terrible, Georgia is overrated, they’re not the team we thought they were.’
“ And Georgia went back, backed into a corner, and they just came out swinging, and that was the turning point in that season, and they needed that loss to ignite.”
“Now here we are in 2018, we thought they would be that team we saw the last three weeks (of the 2017 season) this entire year, despite all those losses of players,” Herbstreit said. “Now that they’ve lost, who are they going to be after that loss, without all those leaders, especially Roquan Smith?
“Are they going to be that team that got backed into a corner, and they’re gonna come out swinging, out to prove everybody wrong? We’ll find out Saturday in Jacksonville.”
Herbstreit said that because Georgia is not “the program that’s on autopilot,” the team is still affected by critics and people doubting them.
“Watch them come out this week and put it all together, and watch Jake Fromm come out throwing the ball well,” Herbstreit said. “Watch the receivers make plays, wouldn’t shock me at all, because I think that’s where they are as a program.”
Herbstreit’s exclusive interview with DawgNation was sponsored by Allstate, which has a “Mayhem” program detailing the passion college football fans have for their sport. Among the Mayhem stats, a survey revealed that 46 percent of college fans have kissed or hugged a stranger because their team won a big game.
Georgia football vs. Florida, DawgNation