ATHENS — There’s no excuse, not this year. Georgia has to win the SEC East. There’s only one team in this motley division that stands half a chance of being any good, and that team wasn’t on display in Gainesville, Fla., on Saturday. If these Bulldogs don’t play in Mercedes-Benz Stadium on Dec. 2, this program – sorry to mix sporting metaphors – might as well sack up the bats.
To say Georgia has proved its bona fides is to overstate. It has beaten Appalachian State of the Sun Belt and, on Saturday night in Sanford Stadium, Samford, also nicknamed the Bulldogs, of FCS. (Sanford, Samford. If that team from Palo Alto shows up between the hedges anytime soon, my typo count goes Code Red.)
In between two lesser lights, Georgia outlasted Notre Dame in South Bend. It’s unclear if the Irish are anything special – the guess is that they aren’t – but still: It was at worst the second-best win in Kirby Smart’s 1 ¼ seasons, and it came at a time when much of the East is trying its hardest to set up housekeeping in the basement.
Florida suspended half its roster and lost to Michigan. The Gators went 7 2/3 quarters without an offensive scoring a touchdown and nearly blew a game Saturday. Not to be outdone, Tennessee blew the same game by allowing a receiver to run unchallenged through its secondary with the score tied and time expiring. This wasn’t to be confused with the Hail Mary that Jauan Jennings snagged against Georgia. This wasn’t the fickle finger of jump-ball fate. This was terrible defense.
At game-planning, Butch Jones is the worst coach in the history of humankind. Does Tennessee ever take the field and do what it intends? Does it even show up before halftime? The Vols are gifted enough to wad up their alleged script and improvise their way back into games, but this remains a misguided aggregation that will win nothing of consequence. And the Gators, who’ve won the SEC East the past two seasons, cannot do it again. (Well, can they?)
Missouri opened by yielding 43 points to FCS Missouri State, then lost 31-13 to offensively challenged South Carolina, then fired defensive coordinator DeMontie Cross. On Saturday, the Tigers lost 35-3 to Purdue. Offensive coordinator Josh Heupel is stepping lightly. Buoyed by their victory in the other Columbia, the Gamecocks returned home and, pun intended, laid an egg against Kentucky, which was roundly tepid in beating Southern Miss and Eastern Kentucky.
If we’re doing the eyeball test, the second- and third-best looking teams in the SEC East are Vanderbilt, which upset Kansas State in Nashville on Saturday, and the aforementioned Big Blue. We note for the record that South Carolina once won this division and Missouri unaccountably did it twice. But Vandy and Kentucky? Sorry. Never have, never will.
Which brings us to Georgia. Nothing that happened at Sanford against Samford did anything to burnish or blemish UGA’s case. It led by 21 after 19 ½ minutes, having outgained the outmanned visitors 278 yards to 23 and totaling 12 first downs to the other Bulldogs’ zero. Jake Fromm threw three touchdown passes. Nick Chubb rushed for 94 yards in the first quarter and would finish with 131.
Georgia won 42-14, a result that should have placated both sides. There was no severe Notre Dame hangover, unless you count Chubb being halted on fourth-and-1 on the game’s first series. (Although Kirby Smart, being a coach, said: “I was really disappointed at halftime.”) Samford counted its guarantee money and headed back to Birmingham wondering if it might have just lost to a team that will play another team from Alabama come December.
Georgia is 3-0, none of those games having come against SEC competition. That commences next Saturday against Mississippi State – more Bulldogs! – and the Starkville colossus just whipped LSU 37-7. (Didn’t I tell you Ed Orgeron is no head coach? Also Will Muschamp.) Said Smart of league play: “It’s why you come here … It’s the highest level of ball. You can’t have substitution mistakes, you can’t have kicking errors, you can’t have (defensive) busts. They can cost you in a tight game, and every game we play from here on will be tight.”
Maybe. Possibly. But no East team has Georgia’s talent. If wouldn’t seem a vintage UGA assemblage — while better, the offensive line still isn’t good — Jacob Eason’s injury might have impelled the Bulldogs to play to their remaining strengths. Have Fromm manage the game and hand the ball to his many and splendid backs and let the defense handle the rest. This defense is big-time.
Your past four SEC East champs: Missouri, Missouri, Florida, Florida. Georgia coulda/shouda won every time but is stuck on an 0-fer. Never, however, has the path seemed more inviting. Such is the flimsy state of this division that the maroon Bulldogs could come here and win and still the red Bulldogs would be in pole position to play in Atlanta. Yes, we’ve said this many times before. But if not now, when?