ATHENS – The moment that the measurement was final and Vanderbilt players began celebrating, Kirby Smart grimaced and turned to his sideline, signaling for the defense to go on the field for one final play in a stunning Georgia defeat.
It was, arguably, the low point of Smart’s first season as a head coach: Georgia had well more than twice Vanderbilt’s yardage, and yet lost by a point after an ill-advised fourth down play call left the team inches short.
“There were a lot of errors in that game,” Smart recalled this week. “Give them credit.”
This year Georgia comes in playing as well as anybody in the country, unbeaten and ranked No. 5, while Vanderbilt (3-2) is coming off two straight losses. Georgia has talent and resources that well outstrip Vanderbilt’s football program, and has dominated the all-time series. The Bulldogs were a 17-point favorite as of Thursday, per VegasInsider.com.
And yet over the last decade-plus this match-up has seen some funky games. And some clunky results:
2016: Vanderbilt won in Athens for the first time since 2006, after Georgia, trailing 17-16, called an outside run to Isaiah McKenzie on fourth-and-1, with Nick Chubb as lead blocker rather than carrying the ball. Vanderbilt’s All-SEC inside linebacker, Zach Cunningham, sniffed out the play and pulled McKenzie down before the marker.
2015: Georgia won, 31-14, but puttered around on offense, needing three Vanderbilt turnovers and a McKenzie 77-yard punt return touchdown.
2013: Vanderbilt came back to pull off the 31-27 upset, in a game Georgia thought it had clichéd early in the fourth quarter with a fourth-down stop, only for a controversial targeting call against Ramik Wilson extend a Commodores drive.
2011: Georgia barely hung on to win, 33-28, with punter Drew Butler making a game-saving tackle after his punt was blocked deep in Georgia territory late in the game. The defense held on in the short field as the Bulldogs survived.
2007: A week after being routed at Tennessee, Georgia barely escaped the trip to Nashville with a 20-17 victory. Somehow, that propelled the Bulldogs on a winning streak, finishing with seven straight wins, including in the Sugar Bowl.
2006: In one of the stunning upsets of the Mark Richt era, Vanderbilt won in Athens, 24-22.
This year, the bettors expect the score to closely resemble the results of other Georgia-Vanderbilt tilts this past decade: 44-17 (2014), 48-3 (2012), 43-0 (2010). The Bulldogs are playing very well, have a shut-down defense, and last year’s game should work in their favor, preventing any looking past the Commodores.
“The Vanderbilt game was very frustrating last year,” sophomore tight end Charlie Woerner said. “We’re mad inside about it, and it’s been in our heads a lot.”
That doesn’t mean something funky couldn’t happen on Saturday, as Smart keeps warning his team.
“Humility is a week away. That is what we talk to them about all the time,” he said. Again, humility comes through practice, going good on good, competing, getting better. It’s a 100-yard sprint and we are at 40 yards. Who cares? They don’t ever talk about who won the first 50 meters of a 100-meter race. I have never heard anybody talk about it. They don’t care. There’s a lot of football to be played and we are focused on Vanderbilt.”