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Curtis Compton/AJC
Georgia coach Kirby Smart finds himself in the unusual position this season of having to build up his team after a loss rather then keep them humble in the wake of wild success.

Georgia’s weaknesses exposed by Auburn, but all is not lost

ATHENS ― Georgia was exposed Saturday. The Auburn Tigers flipped the Bulldogs over and showed the world their soft underbelly. It was embarrassing and humiliating, kind of like being stripped naked and paraded before 87,000 screaming people, not to mention a live national television audience.

But all is not lost. I still believe Georgia is in the midst of a special football season. The Bulldogs still can reach the loftiest of their goals.

And even if they don’t, 2017 still will be considered a damn good year for UGA.

Listen, I’m not here to give you a rah-rah speech and say never give up on  Ol’ Alma Mater. That’s not what this about. As Bill Belichick likes to say, “You are what you are,” in football. What Georgia is, in my estimation, a very good football team with some strong senior leadership and some special chemistry.

But, as the Bulldogs (9-1, 6-1 SEC) prepare to host Kentucky (7-3, 4-3), they remain a flawed team. There were reasons Georgia wasn’t a preseason pick to make the College Football Playoff. Nobody was making up the fact that there was a complete rebuild to be made on the offensive line. We all agreed they needed to get better play out of the quarterback position and on special teams. Yes, they had come through with flying colors the first 10 weeks of the season, but they also hadn’t faced a team of Auburn’s ilk until Week 11.

I predicted Georgia would be a two-loss team in 2017. I didn’t think the Bulldogs would make it to Atlanta. So they’ve already exceeded my expectations in that regard.

But I have also changed my view of this team during the course of the season by virtue of what I’ve seen them do on the field each Saturday. As the year progressed, I, too, became a believer. I went from scoffing at the notion that Georgia might contend for a championship in Kirby Smart’s second year to, “You know, it could happen.”

And I still feel that way.

What happened on The Plains on Saturday doesn’t change my recalibrated estimation of this team. Like two-loss Auburn this past weekend, I still think Georgia can get hot and beat anybody in the country. That extends to Auburn or Alabama, whichever one the Bulldogs happen to run into in the SEC Championship Game.

After seeing how the Tigers played Saturday night, I wouldn’t be at all shocked if Auburn is the opposing team Dec. 2. Alabama has to play in The Plains on Nov. 25. I’m assuming Auburn’s fan base will be as jacked for the Iron Bowl as it was for No. 1 Georgia last Saturday.

All that’s still being decided. But, remember, Georgia has had its date booked in sparkling, new Mercedes-Benz Stadium for a couple of weeks now. So have a whole bunch of the Bulldogs’ fans. They have had a knack for turning out in pretty good numbers wherever and whenever their team has something to play for, this season especially. I happen to know for a fact there has been a strong play by the red-and-black faithful to be the majority party inside the Benz in three weeks. Don’t underestimate the significance of that.

As for that debacle at Jordan-Hare the other night, I think it’s important that the matchup be kept in perspective. I don’t for a minute believe that Auburn was 23 points better than Georgia, or 30 if you want to quibble about that late, meaningless touchdown the Bulldogs put on the board. The Auburn defensive line manhandled the Georgia offensive line. The bigger surprise to me was how well the offensive line handled Georgia’s  defensive line. The lines of scrimmage ended up be a decisive edge in Auburn’s favor.

But a lot of what we witnessed Saturday was a result of venue and atmosphere. Jordan-Hare was rocking like we’ve seen Sanford Stadium rock several times this season. And the raucous environment got only more intense with each miscue and personal-foul penalty Georgia committed. It was a vivid illustration of why football is described as a momentum sport.

“Our concern [is] we had mistakes,” Georgia coach Kirby Smart said of the 40-17 loss. “We had really undisciplined penalties, things I talked about in the postgame presser. But our players, we have told them we have moved on. We have to go get ready for Kentucky, and that is really where our focus is.”

Certainly, everybody would feel a lot better about things if Georgia would have returned to Athens on the short end of a 24-20 score or some similar sort of deficit. The Bulldogs didn’t show much in the way of poise and did not comport themselves well in that challenging environment. But whether they lost by three points or three touchdowns didn’t really matter. It all counts as just one tally in the loss column.

Keeping it at one is the key now.

As much of a concern as Georgia’s breakdowns were on the lines of scrimmage and on the discipline front, the biggest concern coming out of Auburn might be the team’s psyche. The Bulldogs have been a confident bunch all year, and their belief in themselves had only been building since they left Notre Dame as 20-19 winners on Sept. 9.

Now even that alleged “signature victory” could be questioned, especially considering what Mark Richt’s Miami Hurricanes did against Fighting Irish on Saturday (Miami won 41-8, in case you missed it).

“That wasn’t the performance we were looking forward to; that wasn’t Georgia football,” senior defensive back Aaron Davis said. “That showed on the scoreboard at the end. But I don’t think our confidence has faltered or anything like that. Guys  are continuing to put in the work and do what we need to do so we can play confident on Saturday.”

You don’t have to go very far back to find precedents.

  • Georgia suffered a late-season stumble in 2005. Having to play without injured quarterback D.J. Shockley, the Bulldogs had just lost 14-10 to Florida when a formidable Auburn team came to town as a decided underdog. Georgia lost a heartbreaker 31-30, yet managed to win out against Kentucky and Georgia Tech before stunning No. 3 LSU 34-14 in the SEC Championship Game.
  • In 2007, the Bulldogs were humiliated in a 35-14 loss to an unranked Tennessee team in Knoxville. Ultimately, the loss would knock them out of the SEC title game. But Georgia never lost again that season and finished No. 2 in the final polls after crushing No. 10 Hawaii 41-10 in the Sugar Bowl.
  • Then there was 2012. Everybody was certain the Bulldogs were in for a pedestrian season at best after they were steamrolled by South Carolina 35-7 in Columbia. But Georgia went back to Athens, reassessed what it was doing on both sides of the ball and won its last six games by an average of 23½ points. No. 2 Alabama was a big favorite in the SEC Championship Game. But you’ll recall that the Bulldogs lost 32-28 only after their final drive ended on the Crimson Tide’s 5-yard line. Had that final play worked, it would’ve been Georgia that played ― and would’ve beaten ― Notre Dame in the BCS national championship game.

Smart’s probably not recounting those seasons with Georgia’s players. In fact, I’m sure he’s not. As ever, his message continues to be to focus only on the next game and think about no other ramifications.

Interestingly, Smart finds himself in somewhat new territory in that regard, for this season at least. That always-grinding and keep-the-boys-humble mentality certainly is effective when your team is winning conference games by an average of 30 points apiece, as Georgia was before Saturday.

But now Smart and his staff find themselves in a situation where they have to build the Bulldogs back up, not tear them down.

“We do it through the organization, top down,” Smart said. “We talk to the strength staff, the support staff, Jonas Jennings’ staff, the coaching staff, the people that get to be around the players every day. We talk about how we’re going to approach them. The approach is, it starts with the man in the mirror. It starts with me, it starts with each one of them. They have to look internally and say, ‘What can I do better to help this team moving forward?’ That starts this week.”