Uh-oh, Georgia. Now look what you’ve done. Just when it seemed like you were flying comfortably under the radar, now look what has happened. The college football world has started taking you seriously once again. ESPN’s Paul Finebaum called Georgia “a legitimate threat” to dethrone Alabama in the SEC Championship Game.
Two games Saturday night changed the way the Bulldogs will be viewed. The first, obviously, was their 31-3 victory over Mississippi State, the most decisive significant win at Sanford Stadium since the Bulldogs ran over Clemson to open the 2014 season. Nick Chubb and Sony Michel were freshmen. So was Deshaun Watson, who began the night as the backup to Cole Stoudt, elevated to second team only because Chad Kelly had been recently kicked off the team. Yeah, it’s been THAT long.
The other game went largely unnoticed here Saturday night as Dawg fans were savoring every moment of this unexpected rout. Notre Dame was doing the same to Michigan State, which suddenly makes the Dawg win in South Bend two weeks ago all the more legit.
Suddenly, all of those preseason projections about Georgia being the runaway favorite in the SEC East seem on point.
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That’s partly because the SEC East looks every bit as awash in mediocrity as it has been the past few seasons. Well, except for poor old Missouri. Mizzou has quite a bit of work to do to get back to mediocrity. The dreadful state of the East had a lot to do with Georgia being the favorite by default.
But now, things are a bit different. The Bulldogs look like they actually could be pretty good. Not that Dawg fans have started chanting, “We want Bama! We want Bama!”
Maybe they remember all too well what happened the last time they did have Bama, which coincidentally was the last time they allowed hopes to soar this high. That 38-10 beatdown on that dreary rainy night right here at Sanford Stadium two years ago was the beginning of the end of Mark Richt at Georgia.
Since then, the program has teetered between tepid and dreadful. Oh, there have been a few highlights. The thumping of North Carolina in last year’s season opener. A pair of tension-filled wins over Auburn. But nothing more than feel-good moments to serve as temporary diversions from the reality of how much the program had regressed since Todd Gurley’s suspension for signing autographs for pay.
The voters took notice of Saturday’s win. Georgia jumped up to No. 7 in The Associated Press poll and No. 8 (behind Michigan) in the coaches’ poll.
Georgia coach Kirby Smart gave the players the rest of Saturday night to enjoy the win. But as for himself, Smart was already shifting his thought process to this week’s game at Tennessee. He shot down one question about the Dawgs playing a complete game against Mississippi State.
“Look, guys. I know every one of y’all wants to write how great this was,” Smart said. “But we still got dropped balls. We’ve still got missed blocks. We’ve still got missed tackles. Still a lot of room for improvement. We’ve got a team that’s got to go on the road this week, just like Mississippi State had to after a big win.”
Working for a decade under Nick Saban at Alabama taught him a few things about side-stepping complacency. So how do you temper the expectations?
“You don’t temper that. You’ve just got to do a good job managing your team,” Smart said. “If you’ve got a mature team, they handle things like that well. It does concern me because I worry about those guys reading it and believing it, you know? But I was around a guy for 10 years who did a good job managing it.”
At least they finally have some realistic expectations to manage.