Georgia has played five games. It hasn’t trailed. No opponent has been closer than 12 points in the second half. Its average margin of victory is 30.2 points. Its average halftime lead has been 21 points. It has outgained opponents by an average of 194.6 yards. These are all good things, except when they’re not.
Georgia seems bored. It has lost one game in regulation since Nov. 26, 2016. Since that year’s Liberty Bowl – remember when Georgia could do no better than the Liberty Bowl? – only three of its 20 games have been decided by fewer than 14 points. If you’re a coach, this scares you to death. (If you’re a coach, everything scares you to death.)
The difference between this season and last is that the 2017 Bulldogs were tested in Week 2. They passed by a point, beating Notre Dame 20-19 in South Bend. That slender victory bought them a season’s worth of credibility, even after they lost 40-17 at Auburn. To their credit, they whipped the Tigers for the SEC title and then shaded Oklahoma in overtime in the Rose Bowl. Then they blew a 13-point lead and fell to Alabama in OT. Still: breakthrough season.
That team could have been the national champ. This one might – but we can’t know that yet. We’ve not seen Georgia put under pressure. Its early test was supposed to come at South Carolina, but a pass became an interception that became a recovered fumble that became a touchdown, and the Gamecocks were behind after 47 seconds, never to recover. The feeling is that the Bulldogs have since been biding their time until the first real exam, which won’t come Saturday night against Vanderbilt. One should arrive soon thereafter.
Beyond Vandy, Georgia will face four consecutive games against teams ranked in this week’s Associated Press Top 25. It’s unclear how good those four are, and I still wouldn’t pick even one over the Bulldogs. That said, Georgia has lately worn the look of a team that knows how gifted it is but can’t always be roused to bring those gifts to bear. How often do you see a team nearly give away a touchdown to nonchalance twice in a decade, let alone twice in three weeks?
Of my many firsthand memories of Nick Saban, foremost is his media briefing on the night of the Blackout at Sanford Stadium. The date: Sept. 27, 2008. Georgia had entered the season ranked No. 1. Alabama came to Athens and, in the first major statement under Saban, led 31-0 at the half. Afterward, the man himself mostly raged over having been outscored by 20 in the second half. “I’m happy,” Saban said. “I know I don’t look happy, but I’m happy.”
Stop me if you’ve heard this already, but Kirby Smart apprenticed under the great Saban. Smart’s attention to detail – and his utter loathing for anything approaching sloth – approaches if not exceeds his mentor’s. Surely the Bulldogs’ inability to put away the worst Tennessee team anybody has ever seen until the final minutes Saturday didn’t sit well. Surely he sees what the casual observer sees: Georgia has been riding its talent, which is fine when the opponents aren’t half as talented as you, but what happens when you run across somebody who is?
Back to last year: If the trip to Notre Dame was a journey of discovery, so was the bus ride to Auburn. By the time the Bulldogs arrived at Jordan-Hare Stadium, they were No. 1 in the College Football Playoff rankings. Next thing they knew, they were 30 points behind. Georgia survived that wobble by beating Auburn by three touchdowns – an Auburn without Kerryon Johnson, we note – in Mercedes-Benz Stadium, but you can’t know from year to year if one loss will prove disqualifying for CFP aspirants.
Say the Bulldogs win at LSU and beat Florida in Jacksonville. Say they handle Auburn in Athens. Say Kentucky, the only other SEC East team without a loss, loses at Texas A&M on Saturday. The Wildcats could still steal the division by beating Georgia in Lexington on Nov. 3. Here are the Wildcats’ other remaining SEC games – Vanderbilt, at Missouri, at Tennessee. The aggregate conference record of those three is 0-5.
Kentucky already has dispatched Florida and South Carolina. It has beaten Mississippi State. If it can upset Georgia by a skinny point in triple OT, that game could damage the Bulldogs in a way last year’s thumping loss at Auburn did not. Now, do I believe the Wildcats will beat Georgia? No. But if the Bulldogs show up at Kroger Field believing they couldn’t possibly lose, they just might.
This is not an indictment of Smart the motivator. This is simply to recognize reality: For the first time in 35 years, Georgia entered this season having played for a national title. Its talent base is among the nation’s very best. (That’s down to Smart the recruiter.) The early schedule has been so favorable that it might have done the Bulldogs no favors. South Carolina didn’t provide much of a yardstick; nobody else was capable.
Georgia will work the first half of its regular season without running across a truly worrisome opponent. That can have a dulling effect. Heck, even Saban’s teams tend to slip once every year. Being the mighty Crimson Tide, they also get the benefit of every doubt. Georgia, which isn’t yet Alabama, might not.
The belief here remains that these Bulldogs are good enough to go 12-0. They mightn’t be good enough to go 12-0 the way they’re playing. To date, they’ve had no chance to lose. That’s about to change.