Not since Aug. 30, 2008, had Georgia taken the field as the nation’s No. 1 team, and the feeling was fleeting. The Bulldogs beat Georgia Southern 45-21 that day, only to see themselves passed in the next Associated Press poll by USC, which rose from No. 3 on the strength of a 52-7 victory over Virginia.
We won’t know until Tuesday if this prosaic 24-10 victory over South Carolina will be enough to keep Georgia No. 1 in the College Football Playoff rankings, but this much we do know: These Bulldogs are SEC East champs.
That was decided 45 minutes after this game ended. Ole Miss scored with five seconds remaining to deal Kentucky its third SEC loss. Georgia could lose its final two conference games – could but won’t – and still play for the league title in Mercedes-Benz Stadium on Dec. 2. Asked before the game in Lexington had ended if he’d celebrate should the Wildcats lose, Kirby Smart said: “What’s there to celebrate? We’ve got to go play Auburn.”
To borrow a line from the coach whose Yellow Jackets just lost to Virginia, Smart and his Bulldogs have bigger fish to fry. A division title is nice. A conference title would be nicer. But there’s only one title that will satisfy this pragmatic son of Saban. In Year 2, Smart has returned Georgia to eminence. But the drill – to lift a line from another man who worked around here – isn’t finished.
This much we also learned from Saturday’s game: If you make Jake Fromm throw to beat you, he can, contrary to popular belief, beat you. Two weeks ago, Florida’s Chauncey Gardner averred that Georgia’s quarterback could throw nothing but slants. This week, South Carolina’s Chris Lammons said of the Bulldogs: “They can’t throw.” Indeed, another quarterback named Jake – the Gamecocks’ Bentley – felt moved to offer sympathy to his Georgia counterpart: “I’m sure it’s frustrating for him.”
Saturday’s pity party began with Smart getting a wild hair. Georgia won the toss, chose to defer and then tried on onside kick that was never close to being covered by any Bulldog. It was an odd move. The nation’s No. 3 defense was facing the 107th-ranked offense: Why not kick deep and defend?
“It was there,” Smart said of the onside kick, although just where wasn’t clear. “We want to be aggressive at Georgia. We want to be the hunter.”
As it happened, this failed gambit led to nothing. South Carolina made one first down, then missed a field-goal attempt. And here came Georgia’s Jake, the alleged Venus de Milo of quarterbacks.
Georgia’s first snap was a pass – deep and incomplete, though not by much. Five of the next nine snaps were passes, all five of them completions. A week ago, the Bulldogs passed only seven times against Florida, which some read as a concession that Georgia didn’t want to throw. The more likely explanation: Florida is so awful they didn’t need to throw.
Of that opening salvo, Smart noted that every play that resulted in a pass wasn’t necessarily a designed pass. “Some were RPOs,” he said, meaning run/pass options. “They weren’t letting us run the ball, so he opted to throw.”
Georgia’s Jake would throw 22 passes, completing 16. Two went for touchdowns. None was intercepted. He was sacked once. His passer rating was 177.6. South Carolina’s Jake had a passer rating of 112.5. It must be frustrating for him.
“We know he could throw the ball,” said Javon Wims, whose foot-drag of a non-slant from Fromm turned what was deemed an incompletion on the field into the as-ruled-by-replay touchdown that put Georgia ahead to stay. “As much as we throw in practice, we know he can throw the ball.
To be brutally honest, Georgia has had smooth glide to the East title. They haven’t trailed in an SEC game. This was the Bulldogs’ closest game since Notre Dame on Sept. 9, it never seemed all that close. They outgained South Carolina by 168 yards. They had more yards rushing than the Gamecocks did passing. Fromm did more than just manage the game, but when it came time to do the game-managing, he did it expertly.
Leading 21-10, Georgia took the ball with 14:08 remaining. It moved 65 yards in 16 plays, burning the clock down to 6:33 and ending in a field goal. Credit the Gamecocks for making a superior opponent work. Credit the Bulldogs for tending to business – even after a week of hearing how they’re No. 1 and all – and leaving no doubt.
“A grind-like workmanlike game,” Smart called it. Then: “Our kids kept chopping.”
By now, we’ve stopped being surprised when Georgia wins. At the absolute worst, this team has stamped itself as one of the two best in the land. But its next game, as Smart noted, will be played at Jordan-Hare Stadium, and not since Notre Dame has Georgia faced a game that could go either way.
Smart: “They don’t measure races at the 50-, 60-, 80-yard mark.”
Part of Georgia’s mission has been accomplished. It will play in Atlanta in December. But that’s only the first part, the smallest part. This team is capable of playing in Atlanta again in January.