Kirby Smart couldn’t have asked for more from Game 1 of Year 1. Had Georgia played nobody and won by 50, he’d have been asking: “What happens when we play somebody?” Had Georgia played somebody and everything gone right, he’d have wondered: “What happens when something goes wrong?” This way, though … this way was, in an imperfect way, nigh-perfect.
Georgia played somebody. Things went wrong. Georgia won anyway, scoring the game’s final 19 points. Jacob Eason’s debut wasn’t a shoot-out-the-lights occasion – of his 131 yards passing, 53 came on throws that didn’t travel a total of 10 yards – but it was noteworthy than his first deployment came with the game tied, whereupon he led the Bulldogs to a go-ahead touchdown, and his second with his team down by 10 and time flying, whereupon he helped turn the game.
Nick Chubb returned and was, just like that, Nick Chubb again. The offense under Jim Chaney amassed 474 yards, admittedly against a terrible defense. The defense under Mel Tucker held a very good offense to 315 yards, the final 49 of those coming after Chubb’s 55-yard touchdown had decided matters. Of greater significance was this: After North Carolina took a 24-14 leads, its next three possessions yielded more Georgia points (two) than Tar Heel first downs (one) or yards (zero).
This was Smart afterward: “I’ve really been hard on these guys, and that’s not going to change, and sometimes they wonder if I’m crazy. But that’s why: Because if I can make it harder on them in practice when things like that happen, they tend to respond better. I’m really proud of the way they responded.”
Contrast Georgia’s response to Carolina’s: Having forged a double-digit lead, the Heels were flagged for eight penalties over the next 17 minutes – three for pass interference (two defensive, one offensive), one for a lineman downfield, one for unsportsmanlike conduct on the head coach, something Larry Fedora, who’s 53, said had never happened with him before. Coming off an 11-3 season, the nation’s No. 22 team lost its mind. Coming off a coaching change, the nation’s No. 18 team kept its head.
And today we ask: Who in the SEC East looks better than Georgia? (Yes, it’s early. Question still applies.) Tennessee needed overtime to beat Appalachian State. Florida led UMass by three points after three quarters. Missouri lost to West Virginia. Kentucky lost to Southern Miss. Vanderbilt lost to South Carolina, which won only because it played Vanderbilt. Coming into the season, there seemed only four realistic losses on Georgia’s schedule. One week in, only three remain. And Tennessee has to come to Sanford Stadium.
The other good part about this opener: As much as Smart learned about his team, he can’t be thinking, “That’s as good as we’ll ever play.” The Bulldogs can and should get better. Sony Michel didn’t participate. Greyson Lambert took three first-quarter sacks. Special teams yielded a touchdown on a kickoff and a missed field goal. Michel will return soon. Lambert might have started his last game. (He just doesn’t make anything good happen, does he?) The special teams will get cleaned up or Smart will throw a conniption.
In the 51-yard completion on third-and-5 that Eason loosed to Isaiah McKenzie that spawned the go-ahead field goal, we saw what was missing from Georgia last season: The daring to look deep and the arm to deliver. (Fedora: “We saw them open it up a little more when Eason was in the game, and that gave us some issues.”) Eason might never be quite as good as Bulldog Nation hopes/dreams, but he’s clearly an upgrade. The new coach might be, too.
“Change is a process,” Smart said, “and we’re trying to change the culture and the demeanor.” One game in, we’re forced to concede that this didn’t look like the Same Ol’ Georgia. This looked new. This looked better.
Further reading: UGA holds its nerve and wins No. 1 for Smart.
Still further: Was that Lambert’s last start for UGA?