For Kirby Smart’s Dawgs, it’s seven down and probably seven — or maybe even eight — to go.
That was the Bulldog Nation chatter in the off week before the annual Florida clash, with some fans already talking College Football Playoff, while the majority of readers I heard from this week were more cautiously optimistic. Even then, most of them appear to be counting on Georgia headed toward an SEC Championship Game showdown with Alabama.
And, one thing they all have in common: They’re really enjoying this season so far — more so than in many years.
Still, as I wrote after the Mizzou game, there are pockets of Bulldog Nation that won’t believe this 7-0 Georgia team really is elite until they see the 3-3 Gators vanquished convincingly in Jacksonville, Fla. Nobody doubts that the Dawgs have the better team, but fans are gun-shy, due to Georgia teams getting tripped up by inferior Florida squads too many times in the past, even in SEC championship seasons.
Al Mamatey spoke for these fans, saying, “We MUST beat Florida! … Thought we’d broken that stranglehold with our recent three-game winning streak in the series. How did they respond? With their OWN (current) three-game winning streak. That’s 21 of the past 27 they’ve won. INEXCUSABLE!”
Wally Lucas believes “this team is special,” and has what it takes to beat the Gators and run the table to the national championship. But, he said, getting past Florida is the key.
Michael Scharff hedged his optimism: “On paper, if we don’t have any more major players lost to injury or suspension, we have the talent to match up well against all the remaining teams on our regular schedule. However, as Clemson knows, the game is not played on paper.”
Other fans can’t help looking past Florida, but they do so with hesitation. As Allen Gaines put it: “Although I’d like to say that UGA and Alabama will meeting on Dec 2, I feel it’s best to wait and see. There are still five teams to deal with, and now that Georgia has moved up to No. 3, their sights are set on gunning down the Dawgs. I do have faith that Georgia will be SEC East champs, but it’s a one-game-at-a-time approach.”
Moving ahead, the Dawgs need to keep improving, as is their coach’s mantra.
There’s the offensive line’s tendency to lose focus and commit false starts that can derail a drive. Georgia also will be facing more elite defensive fronts and pass rushes. And Smart needs to improve his clock management late in halves.
Defensively, the secondary’s pass coverage has been spotty, and the front’s lack of consistent pressure on opposing quarterbacks lately has been disappointing. Missing some key starters up front undoubtedly has had something to do with it, but Smart said that affecting the opposing QB was something they focused on in practice this past week. “We’re not disrupting the quarterback enough,” he said.
As for the offense, you still can slow Georgia’s running game early on by crowding the box, as Mizzou did, but the constant rotation of talented tailbacks wears down opponents as the game goes on. Nick Chubb particularly grinds down a defensive front. If he were still playing in the fourth quarter (which he rarely is), he’d have even gaudier numbers.
Still, it was encouraging against Mizzou to see freshman Jake Fromm making a variety of throws when he needed to do it. That’s done wonders for the Dawgs’ third-down conversion rate.
All in all, I like what I’m seeing from Georgia’s offense, and that’s coming from someone who was quite critical last season of the job offensive coordinator Jim Chaney did calling plays and getting in sync with his quarterback (then Jacob Eason).
The steady improvement by the offense this year has been a pleasant surprise. As fan Keith Gray said, “I was calling for Chaney’s termination last year; but he might be the most improved” part of Georgia’s offense.
Chaney acknowledged at the end of last season that his offense had underperformed. Was his play-calling hamstrung by the limitations of Eason, or was it just coincidence that he finally seemed to open things up when Fromm got in there?
Actually, I think the main factor in the offensive turnaround has been improved play by the line, which was terrible last season.
With Georgia once again running on opponents, the Dawgs now are able to maintain a lead and eat up clock, and that’s chiefly because the OL is doing a better job. It also has opened up the play-action passing game.
But, let’s not underplay the Fromm factor. He’s converting third downs and has a steadier pocket presence than Eason did last year, most of the time waiting patiently until his receivers can get open. Of course, the 2016 OL protected so poorly that Eason had defenders in his face almost every time he dropped back to pass, which likely would have made any first-year QB nervous. Had Eason gotten to play behind a better line, chances are we would have seen more progress from him.
Also, as my son Bill pointed out, the routes receivers are running this season look more manageable. It seemed like Eason had to deal with a lot of long, difficult sideline routes, whereas Fromm has gotten a lot of 10- to 15-yard routes over the middle. His arm may not be as strong as Eason’s, but he’s been extremely effective.
The addition of the run-pass option for Fromm also is a factor this year. Would that have been as successful with Eason behind center? We can only speculate.
Special-teams play also has been drastically improved this season, with Rod Blankenship routinely booming kickoffs through the end zone and steady on his extra-point and field-goal tries. (Georgia still could use more of a return game, though, particularly on punts.)
And, then, there’s the so-called “culture change” we hear so much about, and the players “buying in,” as evidenced in the decision of key upperclassmen to return for another year. As fan Owen Scott said, “I give Kirby Smart major credit for recruiting and retaining quality players and for instituting a culture of seriousness of purpose and teamwork that has kept the team disciplined, focused, and cohesive through the first seven games.”
My buddy Scott said “this team reminds me of so many of the better Dooley teams — no-flash offense that often manages just to get the job done, but you can hang your hat on the defense and special teams every week. Very consistent across the board.”
All of which has fans daring to think about Georgia’s College Football Playoff prospects. While a victory in the SEC Championship Game undoubtedly guarantees the winner a spot in the playoff, fans are wondering what the chances are of the conference getting two of the four playoff spots if Georgia and Alabama were to meet in the game, both with previously undefeated records.
Frankly, I think both winner and loser of the SEC Championship Game getting into the playoff is unlikely if Bama is the winner and Georgia winds up as the one-loss also-ran, but there might be a chance of it happening if No. 1 Bama loses to Georgia. Still, as the AJC’s Tim Tucker noted, USA Today, CBS Sports and Sports Illustrated all have projected that both the Crimson Tide and the Bulldogs will reach the playoff this season, even though, in the CFP’s first three years, no more than one team from a single conference has reached the playoff in any given season. Also, that would mean at least two of the Power 5 conferences were left out of the playoff, which would not go over well in much of the country.
Overall, UGA fans appear to be upbeat, judging from the mail I got this week. As Travis Hill said, “I think our team is in the right hands, finally. … Kirby has a vision … and this is just the beginning.”
I like how a fan calling himself Prime Teague summed up where we are: “As UGA fans, we should take a deep breath [and] enjoy this ride.”