ATHENS — The celebration in the Georgia locker room after Saturday’s win over Auburn was apparently more raucous than any the Bulldogs have had this season. The crumpled water bottles and wet floor indicated a pennant-clinching type of jollification, sans the champagne or beer.
“It was crazy,” kicker Rodrigo Blankenship said. “We were bouncing off the walls. It was awesome.”
Said senior offensive tackle Tyler Catalina: “It was insane. We haven’t won a game here since Nicholls, so we really took that to heart and wanted to win this last SEC home game.”
Talk about needing a salve and getting it. The Bulldogs did. Saturday’s 13-7 upset of No. 8 Auburn was just what the doctor ordered. And new head coach Kirby Smart probably needed it more than anybody.
It has been tough sledding his first year in the big office. Georgia hasn’t had many chances to celebrate like this. It’s not like you’re going to celebrate narrow wins over Nicholls State and tight victories over division cellar-dwellers.
No, this was the signature victory Smart has been longing for. And its timing in coming was perfect. There were dozens of elite recruits sitting in the East end zone stands. CBS was carrying the game to a national audience. Sanford Stadium was packed, the field and hedges looked pristine and there was an ideal fall crispness to the air.
But more than all that was all the physical practices and the constant call to be tougher and the berating and grinding that this eager coaching staff has been dishing without ceasing since March.
“It does wonders for the program, the university, the recruiting,” an upbeat Smart said from the postgame podium. “I’m over here talking to y’all; I want to go see those guys (the recruits). That’s a big part of this. But it gives our kids something they can hang their hat on where we can say, ‘look, if we do this right, if we do what coach is saying, it’s true.’ They can believe in it.”
Slowly but surely, we’re witnessing Smart’s growth as well. He has always been a student of the game and always known what you need to do to stop this and how to take advantage of that. He grew up eating Xs and Os like most kids do Cheerios.
But it’s different when you put on the big headset with all the channels. It’s different when something happens on the field or is about to happen or needs to happen and 125 eyes in unison all to turn to look at you.
Smart admitted as much. As much as his players are getting used to him and buying into his “process,” Smart is also learning how to handle them and how to handle himself. He, too, is starting to feel pretty good about his role on the team.
“I think I’m getting more and more comfortable with game-time stuff, game-time decisions. I think that comes with time,” Smart said. “For me, I’ve always been into that thought-process anyway, ‘what do you do here, what do you do there?’ I’m trying to think one step ahead all the time, whether it’s to conserve timeouts or making a decision on whether to kneel the ball or run it. There’s a lot that goes into that, and that’s the part I’ve probably evolved in the most.”
It shows. Georgia was the team that looked poised and determined Saturday. Georgia was the team that went into the locker room at halftime and came out and looked like a whole new squad in the second half. And suddenly, the Bulldogs’ narrative has changed from the doldrums of a transition year to, hey, there’s suddenly something to get excited about.
The upset victory over a top-10 rival (Auburn was No. 8 in the Associated Press poll and No. 9 in the College Football Rankings) was step two in this resurrection process. Step one was pulling off that better-than-appreciated road win over Kentucky last week. Steps three and four will be taking care of business against Louisiana-LaFayette next week and coming out on top in what will surely be another bloodletting season finale against Georgia Tech.
But do that and Georgia will have won four in a row to end the year, will have beaten two of its three traditional rivals (Florida being the other) and will have landed in a pretty decent second-tier bowl. It’d definitely have a totally different feel.
Of course, Smart’s not about to look past tomorrow’s film study.
“We’re constantly in pursuit of improvement and getting to a certain place and a standard. That doesn’t change based on outcomes,” he said. “I know it changes (for everybody else) based on outcomes. But not for us. …
“We’re never where we want to be. We’ll be where we want to be when we’ve arrived, and nobody’s arrived.”