ATHENS – Since he arrived at Georgia, Kirby Smart has followed the Nick Saban model in many, many ways. So when his team suffered its first loss of the season, and in potentially demoralizing fashion, Smart went to the template again: React to a loss by being positive and encouraging.
And, for good measure, he pointed to Alabama’s history of winning titles even after losing a game.
“He definitely let us know that in his national championships he’s had a loss before,” Georgia senior linebacker Lorenzo Carter said. “So it’s not the end of the world. We’ve just got to get back in the lab and get to work.”
The comparisons aren’t perfect: Alabama has never lost a game by more than 14 points under Saban, period, championship season or not. Georgia lost to Auburn by 23 last Saturday.
But a loss this late is possible to recover from, as Alabama and Smart showed during the 2012 season, when it fell to Texas A&M on Nov. 10 and went on to beat Georgia in the SEC championship and Notre Dame in the BCS championship. Georgia, whose loss to Auburn was on Nov. 11, hopes to follow that model too.
Players say that their leadership group, led by the large group of key seniors who will be playing their final home game on Saturday, were vocal right away about the team still controlling the outcome of its season.
“We still have a chance to do some stuff here that hasn’t been done in awhile,” sophomore tight end Isaac Nauta said.
Georgia (9-1) has already clinched its first SEC East title since that 2012 season. That was also the last year the Bulldogs were unbeaten at Sanford Stadium, and the Bulldogs can do that again by beating Kentucky on Saturday.
There’s also this nugget: Georgia has never been unbeaten in SEC East play since the conference went to divisions in 1992. That can be accomplished on Saturday.
“That would say a lot about this team,” sophomore safety J.R. Reed said, adding: “It would say a lot about us bouncing back.”
The emotional part of it can work several ways: The beat-down at Auburn could send the Bulldogs reeling, snapping a confidence that had infused their nine-game win streak to start the season. Or it could have the effect of relief – perhaps being No. 1 in the country for two weeks was too much too soon for this team, and having the pressure off will help.
“That might be getting a little too deep,” Carter said. But everybody is focused. Everybody realizes that we’re going to get people’s best shots. And I think that let us know that we’re getting people’s best shots, and we better be prepared to give our best shot as well.”
Kentucky (7-3 overall, 4-3 in the SEC) comes in with a solid record, but hasn’t been that impressive getting there. Four of its wins came by a touchdown or less. It lost to Florida and Ole Miss. There’s a reason Georgia is favored in Las Vegas by more than three touchdowns.
What may be most watched, however, is how the Bulldogs respond after last week.
“We obviously had a bus ride back to get it off our mind and put it to rest,” Nauta said. “You’ve just got to move on from those things, learn from them, grind, get back to work. That’s all you can do.”
Carter may not want to psychoanalyze his team. But he knows how it feels about what happened at Auburn, and what needs to happen now.
“That’s not the identity, that’s not the look we wanted to show people,” Carter said. “We’ve just got to go out there and play our brand of football. Georgia football, just fast and physical. Smash mouth.”