ATHENS — Georgia opened the game with an onside kick, a decision that was made earlier in the week. Perhaps, reading between the lines, around Tuesday at 7:15 p.m.
It didn’t work. South Carolina recovered the ball and began the game with good field position. But a point was made, judging by coach Kirby Smart’s response when asked after the game why the Bulldogs — a heavy favorite in this game and the No. 1 team in the College Football Playoff rankings — risked such a play.
“Because it was there,” Smart said. “And I want to be aggressive at the University of Georgia and not be hunted. I want to hunt.”
Georgia hasn’t tried much in the way of trick plays this season. It really hasn’t had to. So, it was hard not to connect this one with what happened five nights earlier.
Georgia was ranked the No. 1 team in the country by the College Football Playoff selection committee. It earned that honor by clobbering opponents, and an onside kick at the start of this game seemed especially out of character. No need for trick plays against this opponent. Don’t give the team a potential break.
But South Carolina (6-3) didn’t score on the ensuing drive. And while it played closer to Georgia than any SEC opponent has this season, the Bulldogs still won in convincing fashion, 24-10.
“It plays out by being aggressive,” Smart said. “We’re not going to change what we do. We believe in what we do. And football is an aggressive game. We’re not going to sit back and play on our heels and say, ‘We’re going to take your best shot.’ We’re going to give you our best shot. And I think that’s how the game should be played.”
As is usually the case, Georgia coaches decided they saw something while watching film of South Carolina’s kickoff return unit. Smart didn’t elaborate on why “it was there,” but that usually means they think the defenders on the front line go downfield to block early, leaving the middle exposed.
“We were watching film earlier in the week, and we went back and looked at film from last year and said, ‘If they line up this way, we’re going to go ahead and do it,’ ” Georgia kicker Rodrigo Blankenship said.
Blankenship felt his approach and kick were right. The ball dribbled about 15 yards, and there weren’t many white jerseys around as Georgia’s Tyrique McGhee got close to it. But South Carolina’s Caleb Kinlaw managed to haul it in and hit the ground.
“I thought it was a pretty good ball. It came off and got a good hop about 11 or 12 yards like it was supposed to,” Blankenship said. “We just didn’t recover it.”
Five plays later, South Carolina’s Parker White missed a 46-yard field goal. It would have been the first time Georgia had trailed in a game since Week 2 against Notre Dame.
Instead, the Bulldogs struck first and led or were tied throughout — for the eighth time this season. And early in the evening they were crowned SEC East champions for the first time since 2012.