COLUMBIA, MO. -- Kirby Smart had it right. His Georgia Bulldogs are 3-0, but they’re not far from being 0-3. They trailed by 10 points in the third quarter against North Carolina. They trailed by a point in the third quarter – and led by a nervous deuce with a minute to play – against Nicholls State. They trailed by 10 in the first quarter here Saturday night and by six on fourth-and-10 with two minutes left. They haven’t made every play. They keep making enough plays.
I don’t know if this will be good enough against what’s coming – Ole Miss in Oxford, then Tennessee in Athens. Smart doesn’t know, either. What matters is that Georgia, in a season of transition, has given itself a chance to make 2016 somewhat more than just a beta test. Had the Bulldogs lost their SEC opener to a Missouri team that probably won’t turn out to be much good, they’d have been playing catch-up in the East once more. But they’re 1-0 in league play by the hair of their chinny-chin-chin, and that’s no small thing.
Not to belabor a point I’ve already belabored, but the thought occurred as Saturday night became Sunday morning in the Central Time Zone: If Mark Richt had still been coaching Georgia and Gary Pinkel been guiding Missouri, who’d have won? (Yes, I know Richt was 3-1 against Pinkel’s Mizzou.) This was the sort of hairbreadth game that kept the Bulldogs from winning the East the past three seasons, and doggone if they didn’t win it under Richt’s replacement.
We can say the Bulldogs didn’t play to max potential against the Tigers, and Smart wouldn’t disagree. Nick Chubb and Sony Michel rushed for 100 yards between them, as opposed to 100 apiece. Jacob Eason threw a horrid interception that spawned the touchdown that kept Mizzou ahead until fourth-and-10. The defense was shredded early and mustered no sacks all game. All three Drew Lock interceptions were as much a function of, ahem, brain lock as of Georgia technical nous. (Although Quincy Mauger’s foot-drag in the end zone was adroit, and it pretty much saved the ol' ballgame.)
Georgia’s offensive line appears nothing special. Its defensive line is young. Its secondary was running around at sixes and sevens. Apart from Isaiah McKenzie returning punts, the kicking game is atrocious. Yet the Bulldogs are 3-0, having played nobody of the highest caliber but having three times declined invitations to roll over and lose. This is not nothing.
Neither was the performance Eason authored in his second collegiate start, his first in the SEC, his first on the road. He didn’t hit on every throw – and he whiffed on the one bad one – but he made the winning throw and a bunch that led up to it. He threw 55 passes. (No pitch count for this rookie.) He completed 29 for 308 yards and three touchdowns. Had he been less than stellar, Georgia would have lost. He was stellar. Georgia won.
As we survey the East, we ask again: Who looks better than Georgia? Tennessee again had trouble separating from a non-Power Five opponent. Missouri is 1-2. Vanderbilt lost by 31 at Georgia Tech. South Carolina lost in Starkville. Kentucky is bad even by Kentucky standards. Florida just saw Luke Del Rio, its latest quarterback, suffer a knee injury. Were the Bulldogs based in the West, they'd have a tough time going 5-3 in league play. But they’re not, and they don’t face Alabama, LSU or Texas A&M. This could happen, folks.
To win the East, Georgia will have to play better than it has. That potential is here, even if the offensive line mightn’t be. Smart has found his quarterback. Eason has found his go-to guy in McKenzie. Jim Chaney is a major upgrade over Brian Schottenheimer. (Granted, not the toughest act to follow.) As happened against North Carolina, Georgia’s defense got better as Saturday’s game went along, and you’d hate for it to be the other way around.)
This team could go 10-2 or -- cold chills time -- even 11-1 and not be a great team. It's difficult to envision Georgia beating Alabama on the first Saturday in December. But the Bulldogs have a real shot to be there and give it a try.
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