Georgia fans, spoiled by a slew of runaway SEC wins this season, left Sanford Stadium on Saturday generally of two minds.
Many, if not most, were thrilled with the Dawgs’ first 9-0 start since 1982, even if the victory over South Carolina wasn’t the most impressive of Georgia’s wins this year.
Others were happy to have any win, but groused about what looked like a bit of post-Jacksonville letdown, resulting in sloppy play, too many penalties, and a turnover on the opponent’s 4-yard line (breaking the Dawgs’ nation-leading streak of a perfect 31 straight red zone conversions).
It’s true that the Georgia pass defense was somewhat porous at times against a pretty decent Gamecocks air attack, particularly on third down, and the Dawgs’ rush couldn’t get consistent pressure on Gamecocks quarterback Jake Bentley, who completed 21 of 35 passes.
But, when it counted in the second half, the Georgia defense held. And, Dawgs defenders came away with 2 more interceptions, prompting the new spiked golden pads sideline ritual.
On the other side of the ball, the glass-half-full fans pointed out that the Dawgs offense faced the toughest SEC defense it has seen so far this season and looked a lot more balanced between pass and run than last week against Florida.
But the Dawgs weren’t able to run away with the game like they did in previous SEC matches. As Kirby Smart put it in his press conference after the game, “That was a grind-like, workmanlike win.”
Still, let’s not lose sight of the fact that Georgia won by 14 points, and the outcome of the game never really was seriously in doubt in the second half.
It may not have been a blowout, but it wasn’t a nail-biter, either. Whether it was a good enough performance to keep the Dawgs ranked No. 1 in the College Football Playoff rankings — and, at this point, that’s not really all that important, as long as they remain in the top 4 — Georgia did clinch the SEC East division title.
Most teams that finish a season undefeated have at least a game or two where they’re lucky to escape with a win. This wasn’t one of those.
Basically, DawgNation complaints coming out of this game are mostly of the niggling “we’ve got to continue to get better” variety, like head perfectionist Smart has warned all season long.
Overall, it was a good day for Jim Chaney’s troops, who racked up 438 yards total offense (242 on the ground and 196 through the air), with Nick Chubb getting 102 of them and Sony Michel another 81.
South Carolina’s players, meanwhile, learned the hard way that, yes, Jake Fromm and the Dawgs can pass, with the freshman QB completing 16 of 22 passes for 196 yards and 2 touchdowns. The TD passes were impressive throws, and the receivers did a great job with them, particularly Javon Wims keeping a toe in for what turned out to be a touchdown after video review. Mecole Hardman also made a great catch on his touchdown.
Additionally, Fromm threw a key block to help Michel score, and the quarterback broke a tackle on one of his own keepers.
Another encouraging aspect was the way the Dawgs ate up clock with sustained drives. Georgia had posted only four drives that measured 10 or more plays before this game, but against the Gamecocks, its first three scoring drives were all 10 or more plays and went 69, 75 and 75 yards. The Dawgs also had a season-long 15-play scoring drive that resulted in a 20-yard field goal by Rodrigo Blankenship and ate up half of the fourth quarter.
And, while the pass defense definitely needs shoring up, the Dawgs managed to hold South Carolina to just 43 yards rushing and 270 yards total.
Despite the less-than-dominant performance by the Dawgs, the capacity Sanford Stadium crowd was in a very good mood, laughing at mascot Uga X getting naked on a very muggy night, and cheering repeatedly when a Santa lookalike Dawgs fan kept showing up on the video screen.
From here on, it’s only likely to get tougher for Smart’s team, but the bottom line is this: Georgia will be in the SEC Championship Game in Atlanta, no matter what happens in the three remaining regular season games. Still, with potentially much bigger fish to fry beyond that, all of those games are important: If the Dawgs enter the Dec. 2 SEC game at Mercedes-Benz Stadium undefeated, they definitely will be in the playoff conversation, win or lose.
Judging by the way UGA players kept parroting Smart’s “keep chopping” line in postgame interviews Saturday night, they recognize fully the challenge that lies ahead of them.