ATHENS, Ga. – Shortly after Georgia’s 42-7 stomping of Florida, Bulldogs coach Kirby Smart said, “In the SEC, humility is only a week away.”
You can drop that “SEC” qualifier. Such is life at the top in college football. Exhibit A: Ohio State. A week after the Buckeyes upset No. 2 Penn State, they were embarrassed by Iowa.
And that’s especially true for a program unaccustomed to the view from great heights. For much of Saturday, Smart’s words of caution were starting to look like words of prophecy. The longer Georgia let South Carolina hang around, the more tenuous things seemed. Not that there was ever any doubt as to which team was superior. Georgia was dominating.
Still, Georgia’s mistakes were making the game much closer than it should have been. It started with a fumble by Terry Godwin at the South Carolina 4 on Georgia’s first possession.
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There were two critical penalties – defensive holding on a South Carolina fake punt that gave the Gamecocks automatic first down, and a late hit at the 9 to give South Carolina a first down. There were some busted coverages on defense, allowing Gamecocks quarterback Jake Bentley to complete some big passes, including one after Julian Rochester seemingly had Bentley sacked inside the 5-yard line.
The Bulldogs prevailed, winning 24-10, but at times it felt more like they survived. The score might have raised eyebrows after the Dogs kept blowing out overmatched opponents. But it neither surprised nor concerned the players and coaches.
“We’re going to have to be able to play those four-quarter games,” said tailback Sony Michel.
“The grind is real,” Smart said.
Oh, and did we mention that Georgia is officially SEC East champions?
It became official when Kentucky lost to Ole Miss shortly after Georgia won. Not that there was any scoreboard watching. There was certainly no celebration. Not even handshakes or high fives in the locker room.
“There’s not going to be a celebration,” Smart said, seeming almost oblivious to the fact that Georgia had punched its ticket to the SEC Championship Game. “I mean, what’s there to celebrate? We’ve got to play Auburn next week.”
Georgia’s sixth division title – and its first since 2002 – certainly seems immaterial right now with what else is at stake. The Bulldogs are ranked No. 1 in the College Football Playoff poll. The only way they can assure themselves of remaining in the top four to make the playoffs is to keep winning.
At Auburn on Saturday, followed by Kentucky at home, then at Georgia Tech before the SEC Championship Game, most likely against Alabama.
“We understand,” said receiver Javon Wims, “that we control our own destiny.”
The Bulldogs will need to play a cleaner game to beat Auburn, let alone Alabama. The Gamecocks fought hard but didn’t have enough talent.
“There were three or four runs that were just Sony and Nick (Chubb),” Smart said. If not for them, they outplayed us at times. We were just more talented.”
Michel’s 81 yards on 16 carries were a lot more hard earned than his two long touchdown runs against Florida. Likewise, Chubb had to grind hard for his 102 yards on 20 carries. Throw in their 25 yards receiving and Chubb and Michel combined for 208 of Georgia’s 438 yards total offense.
But Fromm also continued to show that he’s capable of carrying the offense at times. Two of Georgia’s three touchdowns came on Fromm passes, one to Wims and the other to Mecole Hardman. Fromm also had a key block on Michel’s touchdown run off of a direct snap.
With each passing win, it’s obvious this Georgia team is something special. Not necessarily supremely talented like some of those Alabama teams. But arguably just as focused as Nick Saban’s teams. The players get congratulations from students around campus, but they don’t seem to notice.
“Tunnel vision,” Wims said.
Of course, their national championship hopes could end with a loss to Auburn.
We’re trying to stay the hunters, not the hunted,” Hardman said. “I mean, if you’re hungry you’re going to go eat, right? So we’re not going to let nobody come eat us or hunt us. We’re going to still be the hunters.”