Heading into November of 2016, Georgia was a 4-4 team with a first-year coach. The Bulldogs were coming off a 24-10 loss to Florida, which went on to win its second consecutive SEC East title that year. The “this is why you don’t fire someone like Mark Richt to hire someone with zero head coaching experience” column wrote itself. The Bulldogs were a team just struggling to reach mediocrity in the ever-obtainable East, much less rise above it.
And then it all changed.
Rodrigo Blankenship nailed a game-winning field goal to beat Kentucky on the road a week later, and Georgia closed SEC play with a win against No. 8 Auburn to reach a 4-4 end-of-season mark against the conference.
Sure, the Georgia Tech loss to close the regular season stung, but that Florida loss marked an important rock bottom that Georgia has been climbing out of ever since.
The past 2 years, the Bulldogs owned the East in a way that I’m not even sure people realize.
Obviously the stat everyone knows is 12-0. That is, Georgia went 12-0 against East foes the past 2 years. What you might not know is that all of those games were won by at least 14 points with an average margin of victory of 25.3 points per contest. The East team that’s been the closest to them on average over the past 2 seasons — smallest margin of defeat — was South Carolina at -19.
But wait, there’s more!
Mizzou is the only East team the past 2 years to hit 28 points in a single game against Georgia. In fact, non-Mizzou East teams averaged 12 points per game against Georgia in the past 2 seasons.
Just 1 more stat. I promise.
Georgia played 720 minutes of football against East opponents the past 2 years, and trailed for just 9 minutes and 38 seconds. That’s 1.3% of the time Georgia was on the field.
OK. You get it.
What Kirby Smart has done during that time can’t be overstated, no matter how much the naysayers want to continue to point to his in-game decision-making against Alabama.
But, as is often the case in this sport, this becomes a “what have you done for me lately” business. If and when the East winning streak ends (it’s now at 13 games dating to 2016 at Kentucky), the headlines won’t be about Smart’s lack of experience. It’ll be about how he’s losing control of the division. You know, depending on who that loss comes to (Florida and Tennessee would make the most sense for that narrative to pick up steam).
We don’t know when that time will come because frankly, nobody has been close. Jeremy Pruitt got emotional because Tennessee was within 12 in the final minutes of that game last year (that’s not a knock on Pruitt or the Vols, but just a sign of the times).
What we do know is that no SEC team in the 21st century — not even Alabama — dominated its division like this in a 3-year stretch. Nick Saban is the only SEC coach to have 3 consecutive SEC Championship appearances in the 21st century (Alabama also had a 3-year conference title appearance streak from 1992-94 and Florida did it from 1992-96). Here were Alabama’s numbers against the West from 2014-16:
- West record — 16-2
- Longest win streak during stretch — 11
- Average margin of victory — 15.3
- West titles — 3
- Wins vs. top-25 West teams — 12
(It’s worth noting that Alabama’s current 3-year run actually had an average margin of victory of 25 points, but I used that example because of the 3 consecutive division titles.)
Yes, I realize that last stat is important. From 2014-16, Alabama averaged 4 wins against division foes that were ranked at the time compared to just 1.5 for Georgia from 2017-18. That’s why I didn’t do a side-by-side comparison because it’s not fair considering it’s totally different competition.
But while the West has undoubtedly been significantly better during the Playoff era, let’s also not forget that Georgia beat 3 East opponents who were ranked last year, and all of those wins were away from home by at least 3 scores.
And we’re talking about the ability dominate opponents you see on an annual basis. Doing that at Georgia’s rate is absurd, even if the division hasn’t been the nation’s best the past 2 years.
Speaking of sustaining that rate, is there an end in sight to this?
Like, who’s going to be the first East team to lose by fewer than 14 points? Who can actually hold a lead against Georgia for more than 7 minutes? Who will reach 30 points? And can anyone from the East, dare I say, actually beat the Bulldogs?
This year’s matchup with Florida seems like the obvious pick for that all to happen, but even that would be taking a big next step. Let’s not forget that as great of a Year 1 as it was for Dan Mullen, the Gators were a mere 3-3 against the East. And one of those losses was the blowout against Georgia, which was playing at its absolute worst coming into Jacksonville.
Kentucky, which had its best season in 4 decades, got to face Georgia at home coming off the Florida game and it still didn’t matter. Mizzou also got Georgia at home with the SEC’s all-time single-season touchdown pass leader in Drew Lock, but that wasn’t nearly enough. And I don’t need to remind anyone of what happened in South Carolina after all that preseason upset hype.
Georgia won’t face any of those teams on the road in 2019, which feels like the most likely setting for this to happen. An 86-27 advantage against Vanderbilt during that stretch doesn’t make Nashville a scary destination for Smart’s squad. Is Tennessee ready to make that next step up and give the home fans a long overdue thriller? It’s not impossible, but I’m by no means holding my breath in the 5-7 Vols taking down Georgia in Year 2 of the Pruitt era. Not yet at least.
Consider that my way of saying this feels like it’ll continue through 2019 and into 2020. Georgia’s reign over the East could last until Jake Fromm is replaced (it’d be an unbelievable accomplishment if he went a perfect 18-0 vs. the division).
Of course there’s always the chance that Georgia has a bad week against an East foe. It seems like we’ve been saying that since the middle of the 2017 season.
It won’t be surprising if we’re still saying that in the middle of the 2020 season.