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Curtis Compton/AJC
Kirby Smart shifts his focus to Mississippi State and the SEC and he likes what he sees.

As SEC gauntlet approaches, UGA’s Kirby Smart likes his Bulldogs

ATHENS – OK, Georgia, here you go. It’s all sitting there for you. What are you going to do with it?

SEC play begins next Saturday and the No. 13-ranked Bulldogs (3-0) are right where they’d hoped to be. They’re undefeated with Mississippi State coming to town for the conference opener.

Only, this Mississippi State team doesn’t look quite like Mississippi State teams typically look. There’s an unexpected shine to the Maroon-colored Bulldogs (3-0). Most of the polish was provided by Saturday’s 37-7 win over 12th-ranked LSU, but they were already sparkling pretty good before that. Some think they might have the best quarterback in the conference in Georgia-native Nick Fitzgerald, and their defense is run by a guy who ran Georgia’s for a while. You may remember Todd Grantham? MSU currently is not ranked but it will be before it arrives at Sanford Stadium for next Saturday’s nationally-televised tilt (7 p.m., ESPN).

And Georgia hasn’t looked too bad itself. The SEC East favorites have done nothing yet to dispel that distinction. They’re unbeaten thanks to an elite defense that has shown flashes of greatness and produces just enough offense to be dangerous. The Bulldogs utilized that formula to dispatch Samford, their FCS visitors, 42-14 on Saturday.

With that game over, it definitely feels like playtime is over now, too. This season like every other will be defined with SEC play, and that begins between the hedges next Saturday.

“It’s what you come here for,” said a particularly intense Kirby Smart after Saturday’s game. “We’ve got a great SEC opponent rolling in here. Every SEC team’s got a good program. I don’t take any of them lightly. They all have good players, good coaches, it’s the highest level of all. So you’ve got to be on top of everything.”

The Bulldogs’ reaction to the outcome in Starkville was interesting to observe. It varied. Some players interviewed soon after Saturday’s game was completed, denied knowing anything about it. Others acknowledged the result but claimed indifference. The veterans all espoused the lines about no games being any more meaningful than any others and just enjoying the present victory for now.

“We’ve seen the score,” said senior tailback Nick Chubb, who had 131 yards and two touchdowns versus Samford. “We’ve just got to stay grounded and worry about that tomorrow.”

Meanwhile, the rest of the division is starting to take form, and the Bulldogs have to like the shape of it. Nobody should be running for the hills after seeing Florida and Tennessee in action on Saturday or in previous weeks. South Carolina just went down to Kentucky and apparently lost their star receiver in the process. Missouri is terrible, apparently. Right now, the Wildcats and Vanderbilt, which handled Kansas State 14-7 on Saturday, look like the teams to beat in the East. For the moment, at least.

And then there is Georgia. The Bulldogs look like they have a championship-caliber defense and above-average special teams. It’s only their offense that gives cause for some pause. They’re being guided by a true freshman quarterback and are still fiddling with the offensive line. But they’ve shown a propensity to execute explosive plays when needed, and quarterback Jake Fromm is nothing if not a gamer.

Then there’s Mississippi State. Dan Mullen’s team looks like it usually does whenever he has himself a big, strong, physical quarterback. The 6-foot-5, 229-pound Fitzgerald, who hails from Richmond Hill, accounted for four touchdowns and 268 total yards in the victory over LSU in Starkville.

Asked what he thought of Mullen’s team, Smart gushed.

“Physical. Big. They have all kinds of ways to run the ball,” Smart said. “I don’t think I’ve ever played him when he didn’t have a running quarterback. It’s really hard to defend because your box count is never good. Dak Prescott, Chris Reif, he’s had all kinds of big, ol’ quarterbacks, and he’s got one now. He’s tough to defend because the guy can throw the ball, too.”

But here’s where you could detect a little edge from Georgia’s young head coach. There’s a glint in his eye and a confidence in his voice that tells you he likes the makeup of his Bulldogs and feels pretty good about entering the impending SEC wars with these guys.

“There’s a lot of good teams out there and we’ve got a good football team,” Smart said. “So we’re looking forward to playing their teams and see what happens.”