Whether Georgia was exposed as a pretender to the college football throne Saturday at Auburn is something we won’t know for another three games.
It could be that the outmanned, outplayed and outcoached Dawgs that we saw trounced 40-17 by the Tigers are the real 2017 UGA team, one not worthy of the lofty ranking it carried the past two weeks.
I tend to think not. In fact, I’d say anyone who concludes that, based just on the loss to Auburn, is guilty of overreach (or maybe just wishful thinking), considering you’re talking about one game in a season that saw previously undefeated Georgia sail through most of its schedule, including two top-quality wins over ranked teams.
Was Georgia really “overrated,” as the Auburn students predictably chanted Saturday (seemingly devaluing what their own team had just achieved)?
Or was Saturday at Jordan-Hare Stadium simply one of those days? You know, one of those games during which a good team played better than another good team, in part because of a superior game plan that was executed almost flawlessly, but also because the losers committed numerous (and generally uncharacteristic) mistakes?
Again, we can revisit those questions after we see what Georgia does against Kentucky, Georgia Tech and whichever SEC West team it ends up facing in Mercedes-Benz Stadium in the SEC Championship Game. As the TV folks like to say, Georgia still controls its own destiny.
What we can say at this point, however, is that Kirby Smart’s team looked overwound and poorly coached for the first time this season.
Both teams had a lot to play for Saturday, but Auburn was the one that looked like it knew what it needed to do, perhaps because it approached this game with a bit more on the line. Georgia already had clinched the Eastern Division’s spot in the SEC Championship Game and a chance at the College Football Playoff. The Tigers, meanwhile, had to beat the Dawgs to even have an outside shot at such dreams. (There’s still the matter of the Iron Bowl.)
As to Saturday’s game itself, it was a classic UGA face-plant, proof that Mark Richt didn’t own the trademark on such no-shows.
Yes, Auburn definitely was the better team on this particular day and mainly won because of its dominant play on both the offensive and defensive lines, but the Dawgs certainly made it easier for the Tigers, giftwrapping at least a couple of scores with undisciplined play that drew unnecessary flags. Faced with their toughest challenge since the Notre Dame game, the Dawgs lost their composure. As Smart said after the game, “We did some dumb things, and we helped them. You can’t help good football teams.”
A poor coaching job by the Georgia staff didn’t help, either.
Ah, some of you may be thinking, this is where Bill takes a few shots at his favorite punching bag from last season — Jim Chaney and his play-calling.
Well, yeah, but not just Chaney. Defensive coordinator Mel Tucker (with Smart constantly in his ear) also called a remarkably poor game Saturday, typified by the play where Georgia tipped its hand at an outside blitz, resulting in Tigers QB Jarrett Stidham throwing right into the area the blitzers had just vacated for another Auburn touchdown. Of course, poor tackling also was a problem for Georgia, and that falls on the players rather than their coach.
In addition, Georgia’s special teams had a pretty horrible game (not Richt-era horrible, admittedly, but by far their worst outing of the season). Mecole Hardman’s productive day returning kicks basically was canceled by some of those “dumb” penalties, as Smart called them, plus Hardman’s own fumbled fair catch that ended up being the game’s turning point.
I hate that it was Hardman who was responsible for that major turnover, because, otherwise, he had an exemplary day as he and with receiver Javon Wims provided Georgia’s only praiseworthy performances.
But, back to the Dawgs’ offensive coordinator and his play calls. It’s obvious that, up to this point, the main difference between last season’s Chaney and this season’s Chaney was the presence of a productive running game, a result of improved offensive line play. As long as his team can run, Chaney looks good as a play-caller.
But, with Auburn’s smothering defensive front dominating Georgia’s OL, completely shutting down the Dawgs’ running attack, what we ended up with Saturday looked a lot like last season’s Chaney, as he kept calling runs up the middle that mostly were stuffed, mostly failing to adjust to what was happening on the field.
That left Georgia in too many third-and-long situations that played right into the game plan of Auburn’s hard-charging pass rush on a day when the Tigers got four sacks of Georgia’s quarterback.
And, when Georgia did throw, Chaney and an obviously rattled Jake Fromm seemingly were obsessed with trying to hit difficult sideline routes to Wims. Fromm and Wims hooked up three times for 96 yards, but there were quite a few times they tried to connect and failed. Otherwise, Georgia’s passing attack was ineffective, summed up by Fromm slightly overthrowing a wide-open Riley Ridley in the second quarter.
The generally awful UGA coaching performance was typified by the mystifying sequence at the end of the first half when, with no timeouts and only 22 seconds to work with from the Auburn 26-yard line, Georgia tried yet another run that made only a yard before having to spike the ball before an unsuccessful field goal attempt. Most coaches in that situation would have taken a couple of shots at the end zone before resorting to the kick.
So, with Georgia’s offense returning to its ineffective 2016 mode and the defense seemingly unable to slow down SEC rushing leader Kerryon Johnson or put much pressure on Auburn QB Stidham, the Tigers pretty much had their way with the Dawgs.
No loss is good, but the optics on this one were particularly bad — especially for a team that had been judged for the past two weeks to be the nation’s best. When a team is ranked No. 1 and loses 40-17 to a two-loss team, it tends to do more damage to its reputation than, say, losing an early season squeaker.
Still, as I noted earlier, the final assessment of exactly what this loss will mean to Georgia’s 2017 season won’t be known until the evening of Dec. 2.
There’s always a chance this lopsided defeat could shake the confidence of Fromm and company as they approach their regular-season conference closer with Kentucky and annual grudge match with Georgia Tech.
But I’m hopeful the loss to Auburn (and the inevitable tumble in the rankings) will serve as a wake-up call, resulting in a more determined team that rededicates itself to being the hunter rather than the hunted, as Smart put it last week. Georgia still canget into the College Football Playoff and have a shot at the national title if it wins its next three games.
If that’s how all this plays out, then the loss at Auburn could wind up being merely a footnote in a special season — the point where Georgia faltered briefly on its way to Glory Glory.