Even with East already wrapped up, don't expect Georgia to step off gas pedal
Georgia entered Week 10 as the No. 1 team in the initial College Football Playoff rankings, but Kirby Smart wasn’t going to be hunted.
Instead, the Bulldogs were the hunters from the outset Saturday against visiting South Carolina. Smart had the guts to call an onside kick to begin the game, and even though the Gamecocks recovered, the second-year coach sent a message to his team.
In the end, UGA triumphed 24-10 in what was one of the better-played games in the SEC this season. Although USC was overmatched in terms of personnel — the ‘Cocks simply don’t have as much depth as the Dawgs do on both sides of the ball — coach Will Muschamp put up an admirable fight and kept the Sanford Stadium crowd uneasy well into the fourth quarter.
Now 9-0 for the first time since 1982, Georgia has already wrapped up the division and will represent the East in the conference championship game in four weeks.
Bulldogs quarterback Jake Fromm was again steady if not spectacular, connecting on 16-of-22 throws for 196 yards with 2 touchdowns and 0 interceptions. The true freshman was cool, calm and collected, just as he’s been all season long.
With running backs Nick Chubb and Sony Michel combining for 183 yards and 1 TD on 36 carries, UGA was able to dominate time of possession 38:22 to 21:38 and took the air out of the ball with a 7:31 drive late — South Carolina QB Jake Bentley could do nothing but watch helplessly from the sideline — that made the fourth quarter all but disappear.
As for the receiving corps, Javon Wims and Mecole Hardman made sensational scoring grabs and took advantage of limited opportunities.
Naturally, the Dawgs were dominant defensively. Bentley was picked off twice, and while the first one was harmless just before halftime, the second sealed the outcome for Georgia and sent everyone between the hedges into a frenzy.
It was fair to wonder how UGA would react to being given top billing in the CFP rankings — one spot ahead of Alabama, to the surprise of many — and the distraction that it inevitably brings. Crimson Tide coach Nick Saban admitted that he liked being No. 2 at this point so he can play the disrespect card with his crew.
But these Dawgs looked like the same highly motivated and well-coached team that we’ve seen week in and week out thus far.
Despite the fact that the East is already wrapped up, Georgia can’t afford to take its collective foot off the accelerator just yet. In seven days, the Bulldogs travel to The Plains for a date with crossover rival Auburn, which is now 7-2.
When Smart arrived prior to the 2016 campaign, he replaced former coach Mark Richt with the goal of taking this program to the next level. Winning double-digit games and being competitive in the division — Richt left a talented depth chart behind, to be sure — would no longer be acceptable. There’s enough in Athens to challenge for national titles.
It’s only Year 2 for Smart (above), but UGA feels like a ‘Bama clone through nine games. These two squads play an eerily similar brand of football.
Of course, that’s not a bad idea. Unlike ex-Florida coach Jim McElwain, another one-time Saban assistant who was fired last week, Smart has taken the lessons he learned on staff in Tuscaloosa and used them to great success already.
Some may argue that a 14-point victory over the unranked Gamecocks — the Dawgs were 24.5-point favorites in Las Vegas — at home isn’t overly impressive, but Muschamp has done some fine work himself. For the most part, USC played clean and made its fair share of plays. The ‘Cocks have nothing to be ashamed of on the trip back to Columbia.
Muschamp went for broke, too. At one point, tight end Hayden Hurst threw a pass on back-to-back plays since he’s a former minor league baseball player with a strong arm.
Without much of a ground game to take some of the pressure off him, Bentley was still 21-of-35 passing for 227 yards. Aside from the pair of INTs, he fired a gorgeous touchdown pass to Bryan Edwards, who made an even prettier catch.
In the end, South Carolina simply ran out of gas facing the top-ranked team in America. The Gamecocks are young with room for improvement — especially since Bentley is just a sophomore — and will be heard from in the division going forward. With both Florida and Tennessee going to pieces right now, Muschamp is in position to capitalize.
Nevertheless, this result says more about UGA than it does USC. The stage was set for a letdown, but Smart wouldn’t allow it.
In all likelihood, the Dawgs can afford a loss before making the short drive to Atlanta on the first weekend in December. An 11-1 Georgia club that defeats the Tide at the brand new Mercedes-Benz Stadium will surely qualify for the Final Four.
But don’t expect that line of thinking to enter the minds of these Bulldogs, not with Smart essentially a Saban clone in terms of preparation — both physical and mental. That’s exactly the kind of contentedness that he wanted to eliminate at his alma mater. While Richt was a quality coach, he lacked a certain killer instinct to go for the jugular and do what needed to be done.
There may be a bull’s-eye on UGA the rest of the way, but Smart has managed to keep his Dawgs hungry. This hunt is far from over.