JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – How does a team decisively exorcise demons of its nemesis at the same time look shaky enough to raise questions about its own mental toughness? The Georgia Bulldogs managed to accomplish those disparate feats Saturday, beating Florida 42-7.
Afterward, Bulldogs coach Kirby Smart found enough flaws that were exposed to keep him from being overjoyed with Georgia’s most lopsided win in this series since Herschel Walker played. Granted, Smart never needs any help finding something to get the players’ attention. But the Bulldogs did make his job this week a little easier with some sloppy tackling, sporadic execution on offense and – the final straw – the second team defense blowing the shutout, which would have been Georgia’s first over Florida since 1982.
“They didn’t play to our standard,” Smart said.
It is this relentless obsession with perfection that is largely why the Bulldogs remain one of four undefeated Power Five conference teams (along with Alabama, Wisconsin and Miami) and likely to be ranked No. 2 when the College Football Playoff rankings come out this week.
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“I’m just worried about South Carolina, to be honest with you,” Smart said. “They have a great program. Will (Muschamp) does a great job. It’s the way of the SEC. Humility is just a week away.”
Mind you, there were some good things that made Smart (almost) happy. The first was a goal line stand in the second quarter. Florida had second-and-4 at the Georgia 6-yard line, but the Bulldogs’ defense held up. Two runs for two yards, followed by an incomplete pass on fourth down.
“The goal line stand is what I’m proud of,” Smart said. “Every great defense has a goal line stand. We’ve not been very good in goal line defense.”
The other proud moment came after quarterback Jake Fromm was intercepted on a careless pass that he was trying to throw away. The defense held the Gators to 17 yards and gave the ball back to the offense. Sony Michel promptly scored his second long touchdown of the game to pretty well put the game out of reach at 28-0. If that didn’t, then certainly Jake Reed’s scoop and score off a recovered fumble did.
For a program being rebuilt into the image of Alabama, this was a very Alabama-like win. Explosive plays. Clutch defense. Solid special teams. Harnessed emotions.
Perhaps the latter is the most evident example of the change in culture. Throughout last week, some Florida players tried to bait Georgia into a game of trash talk. They took shots at Fromm and reminded everyone that the Gators have owned this rivalry for the last quarter of a century. Even afterward, the Georgia players took the high road and refused to trash talk.
“We let our helmets do the talking,” said linebacker Roquan Smith. “In the SEC, a game has never been won by talking.”
They seem genuinely unimpressed with the fact that they’ve outscored their five SEC opponents 212-52 to go with an 20-19 road win over Notre Dame – which gets more impressive with each Fighting Irish win. They have bought in to the message that it’s pointless to be satisfied just yet.
“Because we know what’s at stake,” Smith said. “We know what we can lose if we don’t keep chopping wood.”
The Gamecocks visit Sanford Stadium in what could be a chance to clinch the SEC East. A Georgia victory would eliminate everybody with the possible exception of Kentucky.
But the Bulldogs know there’s much more to be won than the watered-down East. They could punch their ticket into the playoffs if they reach the SEC Championship Game undefeated.
“We can’t pay attention to any of that,” said linebacker Lorenzo Carter. “Everybody’s smiling in your face when you’re doing great. But we know that could change.”
That’s exactly why the Bulldogs have a chance to do something special.