ATHENS – It’s apparent that your program has reached a higher plateau when your team scores another comfortable double-digit win over a Top-25 foe and all the head coach wants to talk about is how his team is a “work in progress” and “hasn’t played its best football yet.”
That was the refrain from Georgia coach Kirby Smart again after the No. 5 Bulldogs completed a 27-10 win over No. 24 Auburn on Saturday night at Sanford Stadium. And anyone who watched the entire proceeding would agree with him.
The Bulldogs were dominant but not sharp. They were physical but not entirely effective. They scored points but should have scored a lot more. They were the epitome of undisciplined.
Yet they won for the ninth time in 10 games and did so without undue stress, 27-10.
“We haven’t played perfect. We haven’t always played smart, but we have played hard,” Smart said in the postgame news conference. “Our goal today was to go out and compete hard, put our best foot forward, and I still feel like our best football is ahead of us. We are a work in progress. … But we’ve got to remove some of these penalties, dumb penalties, penalties that are our errors, and we’ve got to continue to improve in all phases of the game.”
The Bulldogs certainly haven’t resembled No. 1 Alabama, the team they will meet in the SEC Championship Game on Dec. 1 in Mercedes-Benz Stadium. But they’re definitely trending upward and have two more games to get better. Georgia plays host to UMass next Saturday (4 p.m., TV: SEC Network; radio: WSB 750-AM, 95.5-FM) and then Georgia Tech on Nov. 24 before the much anticipated rematch against the team to which the Bulldogs lost in last year’s national championship game.
But Georgia players and coaches refuse to even mention the Crimson Tide by name. As ever, their gaze remains fixed directly down the track of the season.
“I’m not worried about anybody but UMass,” senior Jonathan Ledbetter said. “We were only worried about Auburn today. We finished that, we handled that and now UMass is the next opponent. Nobody on this team is worried about anybody else.”
Here’s how it went Saturday:
This may seem like harsh grading, considering the Bulldogs piled up more than 500 yards of offense and rushed for 303. But this mark is more about what Georgia left out there on the field than what they put on the scoreboard.
In particular, Georgia’s strange deep red-zone issues continue to be a real thing. Three times again, the Bulldogs had first-and-goal situations and failed to score a touchdown. Twice they settled for field goals, and late in the game they failed for the second time this season on a fake field-goal attempt. Meanwhile, quarterback Jake Fromm threw an interception, and Justin Fields, deployed to help Georgia with its goal-line woes, took a sack in that situation on Georgia’s last possession.
“There were definitely a lot of things we need to fix and control,” senior center Lamont Gaillard said. “Settling for field goals, an interception. There’s just a lot of things to fix. But we’re going to do that. We’re going to get better.”
Again, the Bulldogs have made it clear that the standard for them is national championship-worthy excellence, and that was the only thing that kept this from being a higher grade. There was a lot to like about Georgia’s defensive performance, which limited Auburn to a single early touchdown and virtually nothing after halftime.
The Bulldogs were on their heels early as QB Jarrett Stidham and Auburn’s hurry-up offense flew down the field on a 75-yard scoring drive on their second series of the game. Most of the Tigers’ 10 plays of 10 yards or more came in that first half, which saw Georgia fall behind 10-6 at one point.
As usual, Georgia was able to make some adjustments and slow them down after that. The Tigers would manage only 274 total yards and just 125 after halftime. The Bulldogs did not force a turnover, however, and were minus-1 in margin for the game.
SPECIAL TEAMS: B
Another questionable decision to run a fake field goal spoiled an otherwise strong effort. Rodrigo Blankenship never had to strain in making field goals of 25 and 20 yards and added to his gaudy touchback total with four more, giving him 58 for the season (No. 2 nationally).
Mecole Hardman had a 41-yard kickoff return and also downed a Jake Camarda punt at the 1. Camarda had another subpar punt of 38 yards with little hang time that Ryan Davis returned 13 yards.
Smart was unnecessarily defensive about the fake field goal, which took place with Georgia leading by three scores with 3:20 to play. The Bulldogs’ coach claimed it was necessary because a field goal wouldn’t require Auburn to have to make an additional score. What he failed to admit was the odds of the Tigers scoring three times in three minutes were extremely long, especially with Georgia’s defense playing like it was.
The play itself should have worked with a better pass from Blankenship, who just barely overthrew a wide-open Isaac Nauta at the goal line. But the play was so good it might have been nice to carry it unexposed into a future game.
The best work by the coaching staff was to preserve its timeouts on the final offensive possession of the first half and go for it on fourth-and-3 at the Auburn 38. Georgia had anticipated the Tigers’ alignment for that situation and Fromm found a wide-open Terry Godwin for a 38-yard touchdown. That gave the Bulldogs a 20-10 lead with only 21 seconds left in the half and the ball coming their way to start the second.
No matter how you slice it up, any win over a bitter rival like Auburn is a great one. And it was truly a special and exceptional atmosphere in Sanford Stadium. Smart called Georgia’s pregame Dawg Walk, “one of the most incredible … I’ve ever been a part of.”
“The environment created tonight was electric,” Smart said. “That probably has a lot to do with the fact that we were playing a top-25 team and we had a night game. But you can’t find a better place to play college football. Our players love it, coaches love it, recruits love it.”