ATHENS — Kirby Smart didn’t hesitate when asked what separates this Georgia football team from last season’s national champions.
“Hellified leadership,” Smart said, using a word that, per a quick Google search means “complete, extreme and noncomparable.”
Indeed, this version of the No. 1-ranked Bulldogs doesn’t have a record 15 players on the verge of being drafted like last season’s national champions, or experienced depth at every position.
No, this season’s group has had to grow as the season has progressed, and that has meant players have had to hold one another accountable.
“The leaders on this team stand up,” Smart said. “I asked them …. ‘What makes you different than last year’s team?’ And they said, ‘Our response to adversity.’ "
When things went wrong in a 41-24 loss to Alabama in the SEC title game, last season’s group admitted they didn’t respond the right way.
But this year’s team looks different and could win the school’s first SEC Championship Game since 2017 and have a perfect undefeated season.
Sophomore middle linebacker Jamon Dumas-Johnson, named a Butkus Award finalist on Tuesday, is the player most closely associated with that player-led mentality on account of the animated discussions he has had on the field and the sideline with teammates.
Part of that is Dumas-Johnson’s role to communicate play calls and adjustments, but another is his disposition.
It was Dumas-Johnson who said matter-of-factly before the South Carolina game that there were “not really too many challenges” with the Gamecocks’ offense — before the game.
Mind you, this is the same South Carolina team that just beat Tennessee 63-38 in that same Williams-Brice Stadium where Georgia met them.
And, of course, Dumas-Johnson was right, as Georgia beat South Carolina 48-7 and the Gamecocks didn’t score until there was less than a minute left and “JDJ” and other starters had been lifted.
Then there was the post-game Dumas-Johnson in Jacksonville, Fla., after the Bulldogs had turned back the Gators by a 42-20 count.
Dumas-Johnson stood in the postgame interviews with a sour look on his face, his hood pulled up.
“Disappointed,” he said. “We have standards on defense … we didn’t meet them.”
Smart recently revealed that Georgia’s defensive standard of not allowing more than 13 points in any game is still in effect.
Dumas-Johnson, recently asked if he was the catalyst of his defensive group, wondered aloud why he was always the player identified as such.
“The defense, we keep each other accountable,” Dumas-Johnson said, explaining the team dynamic.
“You know, I’ve been in a great room last year with the guys that left, and they had a great contribution to what I am trying to do in our room and to the team.”
To this point, it’s working, but there are challenges ahead starting with the noon game against Georgia Tech (TV: ESPN) on Saturday at Sanford Stadium.
The Bulldogs shut out the Yellow Jackets in a 45-0 win last season, and like it or not, this year’s team will continue to be compared to last year’s group.
To boot, Smart constantly reminds his team humility is a week away — and this season’s team does have plenty of room for improvement.
“Regardless of who we’ve faced, we stood up to the test that we’ve been asked to and am proud of what they’ve done,” Smart said. “But we’re not where we need to be. We’ve got to improve on both sides of the ball.”