ATHENS —Watching Georgia now is really kind of strange because it has become a completely subjective exercise. And that’s how it will work so long as its games contain all the competitive tension of a hayride.
More than the score, these Bulldogs are judged on how they arrive at their latest double-digit victory. Have the 5-0 Bulldogs played fully up to their “standard,” whatever that is? It’s no longer just how many. It’s very much how.
Judging sunsets. Reviewing a film with subtitles. Wine tasting. Watching a Bulldogs game. All similar kinds of activities these days, filled as they are with subtlety and context.
That feelings-based approach even extends to the coaching staff, if you’re hearing what Kirby Smart said about his flip-flopping of quarterbacks Jake Fromm and Justin Fields on Saturday (try six quarterback changes in one fourth-quarter possession). These are among the most amazing seven words ever uttered by a coach who would control time and tide if he could: “The plan is, there is no plan.”
You know, just roll with it, dude. Heads it’s Fromm. Tails it’s Fields.
And so it goes until someone – say LSU, maybe, in a couple of weeks – actually challenges Georgia on the scoreboard. So it goes until simply winning a game in any form or fashion is a relief rather than an expectation.
In the meantime, feel free to pick at the warts that may pop up on a game day, no matter that the record contains fewer blemishes than a Victoria’s Secret catalog. In fact, Smart would greatly appreciate it if you did. He’s tired of carrying that burden alone.
For instance, take Saturday’s 38-12 victory over the team formerly known as Tennessee.
It was a safe and comfortable win, but somehow unfulfilling on an artistic level. What, Georgia didn’t break the 40-point barrier? The defense yielded two long scoring plays? Beating Tennessee any time in any fashion should feel better than this, shouldn’t it? Even a Tennessee team that has crumbled, leaving it to Jeremy Pruitt to try to build a roof on a Parthenon of a program.
OK, so, Georgia’s first score of the day was the product of a terrific individual effort. Tight end Isaac Nauta scoops up the ball after quarterback Jake Fromm was hit and stripped, and runs 40 yards for a touchdown, though officially a 31-yard return. But can that be called a good play, by Georgia standards? There was a big breakdown and a fumble involved, after all. So, is this a net positive or negative in the bigger scheme of what Georgia intends to be?
“A bust on me in protection,” Nauta confessed. “As fun of a play as it ended up being it’s going to be a minus on the ol’ grade sheet.”
The Bulldogs led 17-0 at halftime, but …
What about the Fromm’s little overthrow of Riley Ridley in the end zone from 32 yards out in the Bulldogs’ first possession?
What about that D’Andre Swift drop of a third-down screen pass that otherwise was going to go for miles?
What about trying to run the ol’ strip-sack-for-a-touchdown play again later in the half? Only this time it was just an ugly fumble.
Come the second half, those who thought nothing less than another shutout of Tennessee (a la last year’s 41-0 game) was in order were in for a disappointment. Wide receiver Josh Palmer got behind the Bulldogs’ secondary for a 37-yard, third-quarter touchdown reception and the scoreless streak was snapped. Moments later, running back Ty Chandler transformed a short pass into a 35-yard scoring play.
“Giving up 66 yards rushing, that’s the [Georgia] standard on the run game. We want to out-rush everybody. We want to out-physical everybody. We set the standard on the physical side,” safety J.R. Reed said. “Now we have to complete it with communication on the back end, and not give up those plays.”
Georgia even turned an extra point into an adventure. A bad snap forced kicker Rodrigo Blankenship to come to a dead stop in his approach – like a golfer stopping in his backswing – and stand around to wait for the ball to be set upright. He still made it, though, somehow, just barely, adding to his folklore.
These are the imperfections that ultimately had no effect on the outcome, but are the ones that someday may really matter, so they keep saying.
One of the quirks in this new Georgia paradigm is trying to get a clear handle on the quarterback play. Fromm is introducing all kinds of new efficiencies, in fact, leading the nation in passing efficiency coming into Saturday’s game as well as threatening the Georgia season record for completion percentage. Yet has anyone really appreciated this? Given the ease of victory thus far this season, there has yet to be a moment when he’s had to make that one essential, difference-making play.
By this time a year ago, the freshman Fromm already had a coming-of-age moment against Notre Dame. There would be other defining instances in the postseason.
Thus far, five games in, it’s a big story when Fromm just appears in the fourth quarter. He did Saturday, for the second time this season.
And don’t even try figuring out how Smart is going to juggle Fromm’s playing time with that of Fields. Ask Alabama and Clemson. Trying to keep two accomplished quarterbacks happy is a ticklish chore. Maybe Smart has stumbled upon an ingenious method: Keep everyone utterly confused, the players included, for the next three months.
We can’t even pretend to understand Smart’s plan, not after going all whimsical Saturday. The only explanation is that he has been huddling with Phillies manager Gabe Kapler on turning substitution patterns into a Sudoku puzzle.
Saturday was a day Georgia pulled out all the stops in what it put on the field – trotting out both Herschel Walker and former ’rassler Ric Flair. As far as the team itself, that’s another story.
“We got to protect the passer,” Smart said. “We got to be able to throw the ball down the field. We got to be able to run the ball more consistently. We got to be able to execute on defense, I don’t think we’re getting the pressure we need to get. Got to improve on special teams.
“It goes back to the standard we have as Georgia football. We obviously didn’t play as well as we wanted to, didn’t put up as many points as we wanted to,” Fromm said. “Didn’t quite play to the standard. Kind of sloppy. Didn’t execute as much as wanted to on offense.”
Imaging ever daring to suggest beating Tennessee under any circumstances is in any way a disappointing thing. Yet the Bulldogs have put themselves in a position where anything less than cold, cruel domination – and anything short of covering the 31-point spread – is beneath them.
No one has supplied a specific blueprint for what the Georgia “standard” is, but there was just the sense that it’s still something better than Saturday.
That’s just weird.
And good in a way, because only a team playing to expectations so high they are snow-capped could evoke such feelings.