ATHENS – For all Georgia’s talent, there was no guarantee these Bulldogs would be where they are, which is 9-1 with another SEC East title in the bag and a puncher’s chance at a second consecutive conference title and playoff bid.

They had to perform. They had to win games. They had to prove they weren’t just a pretty good team that caught lightning in a bottle.

In sum, they had to prove they weren’t Auburn, which they did emphatically Saturday night in Sanford Stadium. The team that was ranked No. 3 in preseason beat the team that was ranked No. 9 by 17 points, and the way the Bulldogs did it–falling behind 7-3 and 10-6 and then mashing the gas–was yet another assurance that Kirby Smart has built his program to win big not just every so often but every blessed season.

Three hundred sixty-four days after Georgia lost at Auburn 40-17, Georgia beat Auburn 27-10. Then again, the Bulldogs had toppled the Tigers 28-7 in the SEC championship game Dec. 2, 2017, and this latest result makes Smart 3-1 as a head coach against Gus Malzahn, he of the $49 million contract and the $32.1 million buyout.

Under Malzahn, Auburn has become that lighting-in-a-bottle program: It nearly won the BCS title in 2013, and it beat both Georgia and Alabama when each was ranked No. 1 by the College Football Playoff committee last season. But here’s the Tigers’ record since upsetting the Crimson Tide on the final Saturday of the 2017 regular season: 6-6. And that’s with an even better Bama to come.

Enough about the Tigers. This is to salute Georgia for sticking to its business, for managing what was–let’s be honest–a manageable schedule and for playing better in November than it did in September and October. This is a young team that’s getting better as it goes, and come Dec. 1 in Mercedes-Benz Stadium … well, who knows? But this isn’t about Bama, either.

 This is about Georgia, which fell hard from its one misstep but has again found its feet, and what feet they are. Mecole Hardman could be the best special-teams player in the land. (He had a long kickoff return and downed a punt at the 1 on Saturday.) D’Andre Swift is reminding us why we believed he’d be a suitable replacement for Nick Chubb/Sony Michel. (Swift gained 156 yards in the division clincher at Kentucky and bettered that with 186 against Auburn, 77 coming on the up-the-gut breakaway that made the score 27-10.)

This is also about Georgia’s coaching, which–a raft of inexplicable substitution penalties aside–was again first-class. The defense held Auburn to one touchdown and 274 yards, 51 on a failed final drive. This was no shock: Malzahn’s allegedly sleek offense ranked 90th nationally. For its part, Georgia’s offense took a measured approach, which is Jim Chaney’s way, but when there came a moment to be seized, Chaney squeezed for all it was worth.

Facing fourth-and-3 at the Auburn 38 inside the first half’s final minute, Smart let the clock wind down to 0:29 before calling timeout. Would he allow Rodrigo Blankenship to try a 55-yarder on a chilly night? (Leading 13-10, Georgia was to get the ball first after halftime.) Nope. The Bulldogs arrayed themselves in a five-wide set. Terry Godwin was the inside slot man on the right. Auburn blitzed, leaving every defender one-on-one with a reciever.

Godwin delayed his release just a hair, enabling the other four wideouts to clear space outside. Nickel back Jordyn Peters had no chance. Godwin blew past him on a slant, gathering in Fromm’s pass and taking it 38 yards. That made it 20-10 at the half. Bulldog historian Jeff Dantzler deemed it “our play of the year,” and it was hard to argue. It was a bold call after nifty clock management that loosened what had been a tight game. Auburn was beaten then and there.

“There were a lot of answers on the play,” Fromm said. “It wasn’t just Terry.”

Once again, Georgia left points on the field. It kicked two field goals and messed up another fake, this time with Blankenship throwing, as opposed to trying to run, and missing an open Isaac Nauta in the end zone. Smart and Co. will again have their Teaching Points. But these Bulldogs are proving to be apt pupils. After losing by 20 at LSU, they had three games against ranked opponents upcoming. They won them all by a total of 53 points. They won them about as handily as you can win three games against ranked opponents.

Said cornerback Eric Stokes: “We get better every week, every week. We are constantly improving.”

Said defensive lineman Jonathan Ledbetter: “We’ll be excited to look at the tape and correct ourselves.”

Said Smart: “This was a really big stretch of games for us. [The players have] bit the bullet. We haven’t played perfect, and we haven’t always played smart, but we’ve played hard. I still think our best football is ahead of us.”

This mightn’t be the best team in the country, but I’m not sure even the nation’s best team will be excited to see Georgia coming. The Bulldogs are 9-1 on merit. They’ve again put themselves in position to play for championships, which is all anyone could ask, Kirby Smart included.

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