ATHENS – It’s an easy argument to make: The Georgia football team, if not for a Hail Mary and a questionable fourth-down play call, would be 6-1 right now, all its goals ahead of it, a feeling of optimism permeating a changed program.
Here’s the flip side: Georgia, if not for Isaiah McKenzie hauling in Jacob Eason’s fourth down pass at Missouri, or a third-down pass isn’t hauled in to seal a win over Nicholls State, then Georgia could also be 2-5. And just imagine the headlines at that point.
Georgia’s two other wins, over North Carolina and South Carolina, also saw some late drama. Still, wins are wins.
So it’s been a thin line between winning and losing in Kirby Smart’s first season as head coach. McKenzie – a key player in two of the season’s swing plays – was asked if that made it hard to pin down how good this team really is. He thought a few seconds before answering.
“I don’t know,” McKenzie said. “But like coach Smart said: He’d rather be 4-3 and knowing that we have mistakes than 5-2 and just overlooking that we have to get better.”
What do the numbers say? Georgia is minus-15 this year in point differential – six close games and a blowout loss at Ole Miss will do that – but is well above water when it comes to total yards, at least offense vs. defense: Plus-442.
But look a little deeper: Georgia has run a lot more plays than opponents, who are averaging more yards per play than Georgia: 5.5 to 5.4.
For comparison, Alabama is averaging 6.8 yards per play and its opponents just 4.22, and Alabama’s total yardage differential is plus-1,778. Florida is averaging 5.8 yards per play and its opponents just 4.13, and Florida’s yardage differential is plus-1,047.
There’s also the “hidden yardage,” as Smart and coaches put it: Basically, special teams yardage, where the Bulldogs are also lagging opponents in punting average, net punting, kickoffs in the air, and net kickoff returns.
So what about advanced metrics? Georgia ranks 52nd nationally per the Jeff Sagain ratings, 58th per the ESPN team efficiency rating, and 67th nationally per Football Outsiders.
Smart, who wasn’t used to losing at Alabama, was asked how he was dealing with it now.
“I coached with the Dolphins,” Smart cracked, alluding to 2006, when the NFL team went 6-10.
Alabama also lost six games in Smart and Nick Saban’s first year at Alabama. Then the winning took off.
“You’ve got to feel good if you’re getting the most out of your team and right now we’re not getting the most out of this team so that’s the frustrating part for me,” Smart said. “It’s not a record. It’s are we getting the most out of this team.
The wacky nature of this season is very similar to the 2013 season, when Georgia ran the gambit of emotional games: The Prayer at Jordan Hare, the loss at Vanderbilt after the controversial targeting penalty, wins over top 10 LSU and South Carolina, overtime wins at Tennessee and Georgia Tech, and a three-point loss at Clemson. Oh, and a five-point loss to Nebraska in the bowl game.
“Yeah, it does remind me of freshman year and (Aaron) Murray’s last year,” senior center Brandon Kublanow said. “That was a rough, hard season. But you’ve just gotta keep moving on, and keep playing.”
And Georgia has at least five games left, three against rivals (Florida, Auburn and Georgia Tech) that mean a lot.
But the up-and-down nature of Georgia’s first seven games make it hard to say: Georgia could win out, or it might not even be bowl eligible.
“We take our ups and downs. We work on the good and we work on the bad. But for right now we look at it as another opportunity to get better,” McKenzie said. “Because our record is 4-3 doesn’t mean we suck, it’s just we came up short in certain situations, in certain games. And we just need to get better after it.”