ATHENS — This has been, with one exception, a great season for the Georgia football team, which has, with one exception, played with great poise and discipline. That one exception happened to come against the very team Georgia is about to face in the program’s most important game in five years.
Auburn, in case anybody at Georgia needs the painful reminder, brought out the worst in the Bulldogs, both in play and penalties Nov. 11. So with the rematch coming this week in the SEC Championship Game, how does Kirby Smart treat that?
“You don’t shake a memory. You put it in their face,” Smart said. “We’ve got to play with more discipline and composure to avoid some of the knucklehead decisions we made in the first game.”
It was a great quote, one that Smart hedged on a bit later in a conference call with the media Sunday evening. He didn’t want to make it sound like the coaches had berated the players about what went wrong that night, when Georgia lost 40-17, dominated in both phases, while committing four 15-yard penalties.
“We’re more technical. We’ve got to coach them on what they’ve got to do right,” Smart said. “We’re trying to find ways to help them, not just rub their faces in it.”
Smart and the Bulldogs found out they would face Auburn after they arrived back home in Athens, following their 38-7 win over Georgia Tech in the regular season finale. Smart said he hadn’t addressed it with his team yet, as the players and coaches don’t usually meet on Sundays.
Auburn stamped its ticket by beating then-No. 1 Alabama 26-14.
“We get the privilege of playing one of the hottest teams in all of college football,” Smart said. “Gus Malzahn has done a really good job of regrouping his team after some early losses.”
Smart, who has seen plenty of Auburn teams through the years, both during his time Alabama and Georgia, called this year’s team “right up there with one of the best Auburn teams that I’ve ever seen.”
That might change if Auburn star tailback Kerryon Johnson isn’t available for the game. And his status appears uncertain.
Johnson left Auburn’s win Saturday several times with a shoulder injury, and the final time came when he simply dropped to the ground without being hit. Malzahn, speaking on Sunday evening, didn’t have much of an update.
“I’m not sure if he’s going to be able to practice (Sunday) or not. We’ll see,” Malzahn said. “We’ll check on him daily and see what his status is. Right now it’s really hard to say.”
Smart was asked how Johnson’s status affects his preparation.
“I really have no clue on that,” Smart said. “I’m a lot more worried about Nick Chubb and Sony Michel’s status for us, rather than the other. Because we can only control what we can control.”
Chubb and Michel by all accounts are fine and dealing with no injuries. That was just Smart’s way of not dealing with the question.
When Auburn routed Georgia’s defense two weeks ago, Smart belabored the team’s tackling but said the tackling had been a concern all season. In the past two weeks, the Bulldogs have gotten back on track, especially against Georgia Tech, holding the Yellow Jackets to just 226 yards.
But Smart wasn’t putting too much stock into that, at least as far as carrying over to playing Auburn again, because the two offenses are so different. Georgia Tech’s triple-option and pitches led to more group tackling by Georgia, and near the sideline.
“We did tackle better [Saturday]; I agree with that,” Smart said. “But they were not put in loose-play situations that happen often when you play a spread offense.”