Tennessee presents a statement opportunity for Kirby Smart and Georgia
Georgia was outclassed for four quarters Saturday at Ole Miss, there is no other way to look at that loss.
Be it due to talent, coaching or a combination of the two, the Bulldogs’ 45-14 loss will be tough to shake, but that’s exactly what Kirby Smart’s team needs to do with Tennessee heading to Sanford Stadium this weekend.
A hearty debate can be made whether Georgia’s failure on the road occurred because of a massive discrepancy in talent or because Smart and his staff did not have the players prepared. That is not an answer that can be proven either way, but it does create a unique opportunity for the Bulldogs’ first-year head coach.
Although it might not currently feel this way, Georgia is still very much in the SEC East race. With a win at home Saturday, the Bulldogs would push themselves into the driver’s seat.
Teams and coaches often reveal a lot about themselves after a loss. The good ones are able to refocus and perform at a much higher level the following week; the bad ones dwell on defeat and carry it with them. Smart is a big believer in the “24-hour rule,” and that philosophy will be put to the test this week.
“You’ve got to learn how to let things go,” running back Sony Michel told reporters after Saturday’s game. “We’ve got a 24-hour rule. Whether you win or lose, you’ve got 24 hours to let that game go and move on to the next opponent. We’ve got to act like that game never happened.”
Handling his team’s response to that deflating defeat is something Smart is doing for the first time as a head coach, but it will reveal a lot about how his tenure at Georgia could turn out.
We know that Smart’s defenses at Alabama did a good job rebounding after a loss. Only twice in Smart’s time as defensive coordinator, did the Crimson Tide lose back-to-back games. Excluding those two losses, Alabama never allowed an opponent to score more than 13 points after a defeat.
The schematic track record is there for Smart, but now he must show that he can handle the emotions of an entire team, something that a head coach is uniquely responsible for.
“I am in charge of the organization, the entire team and the coaching staff,” Smart told reporters after the loss. “We did not do a very good job today.
“We will move forward. This team will come back and fight. And I can promise you that they will show up and give an ‘A’ effort next week.”
The importance of responding Saturday is made greater by the opponent. Against Tennessee, Smart will play the first big home game of his Georgia career.
Under Mark Richt, there was a strong belief that the Bulldogs could not capitalize on statement opportunities. One such example occurred just last season, while Smart stood on the opposing sideline.
The hype surrounding Georgia’s showdown with Alabama between the hedges last season was tremendous. For the first time since the 2009 SEC Championship game, the Crimson Tide entered a game as the underdog.
On a rainy day in Athens, the Bulldogs did all they could to show they weren’t afraid of their vaunted opponents. A pregame fight broke out as Georgia players sought to intimidate Alabama. Once the game began, the Crimson Tide made their response, crushing Georgia 38-10.
Almost got ugly pre game. Alabama and Georgia players barking. Refs separate them. pic.twitter.com/0rzui88i5O
— Michael Casagrande (@ByCasagrande) October 3, 2015
In another statement game under Richt, the Bulldogs were all bark and no bite.
This is Smart’s chance to show his program will be different. Even if the team’s talent level and inexperience prevents them from winning, the Bulldogs’ body language will be crucial.
For the sake of comparison, Richt’s team rebounded to beat Arkansas after losing to South Carolina in his first season. Smart’s mentor, Nick Saban, fell to Florida State after his first loss at Alabama, a 26-23 overtime defeat against Georgia.
Neither of those games carried the magnitude of the Bulldogs’ upcoming contest.
Georgia has shown impressive resiliency for three out of the first four weeks this season. That’s a positive sign early on for Smart, but a fast, focused start is what needs to occur on Saturday. The Bulldogs need to prove that they are capable of moving on from a loss, refocusing and making a statement at home.
Most important, this is Smart’s opportunity to prove that he’s capable of building a different legacy from the man he succeeded.
William McFadden covers the University of Georgia for Saturday Down South. For news on everything happening between the hedges, follow him on Twitter @willmcfadden.