There will be no easing into the 2019 season for the Georgia Bulldogs.
After opening with Appalachian State and Austin Peay the past two years, the team will kick off this campaign on the road Saturday night at Vanderbilt. While it still counts as just one game in the standings, the Bulldogs know this isn’t your average season opener.
Some were more reserved in their thoughts. Senior tight end Charlie Woerner said the team tries to remember that the most important game is the next one, but he admitted that this being the SEC opener too adds a little extra something to the contest.
Others like senior safety J.R. Reed were more direct.
“I love it, actually,” Reed said. “It’s the SEC, man. It’s here, it’s right in your face, so you’ve got to kind of attack it. The season’s here, it’s time to get going.”
Head coach Kirby Smart made sure to mention Monday the contest against the Commodores in Athens last season was much closer than the 41-13 final indicated. The visitors from Nashville held the Bulldogs to their lowest first-half rushing total of the season before Georgia pulled away after halftime.
Against teams like Appalachian State and Austin Peay, there is room to make season-opening mistakes. A squad like Georgia can be rusty and not execute to full capacity, but still win by several touchdowns.
Against Vanderbilt, Smart knows that’s not the case.
“Your margin of error is reduced drastically compared to opening with a school that might not be a Power-5 program,” Smart said. “You have to be organized, you have to be detailed, you have to focus and you have to be unselfish.”
Part of that lack of room for miscues is due to the wealth of talent Vanderbilt returns on the offensive side of the ball.
The offense is led by senior running back Ke’Shawn Vaughn, the leading returning SEC rusher and a Maxwell and Doak Walker Award watch list nominee. A physical runner that reminds Reed of Elijah Holyfield, Vaughn ran for 79 yards on just nine attempts versus the Bulldogs a year ago.
The Commodores also have weapons in the passing game. Senior receiver Kalija Lipscomb led the SEC with 87 catches last season and has accumulated nearly 2,000 yards in his career. Senior tight end Jared Pinkney added 50 receptions and 774 yards in 2018.
“Each one of those guys has done a lot to earn the respect of our players,” Smart said. “If you can do it in our league, it grabs the attention of the room.”
Vanderbilt has yet to name a starting quarterback, as head coach Derek Mason said the competition between graduate transfer Riley Neal and junior Deuce Wallace will go down to the wire. However, Smart said the name of the game will be containing all of the weapons the quarterback will have to work with.
Even if mistakes were made, that doesn’t mean there can’t be an improvement. There will be freshmen getting their first taste of college football, and even the veterans know that perfection isn’t likely to begin the year.
“There’s mistakes made in the openers, stuff that goes wrong,” Woerner said. “The opener means a lot, but at the same time, it’s not indicative of the entire season because you grow after the opener.”
While there may be mistakes, the Bulldogs know there can’t be too many. A loss not only sends them to 0-1 overall, but behind the metaphorical 8-ball in the SEC.
“It’s more of an excitement,” Woerner said. “You’ve got really a game that means a ton. Obviously the first game always means a lot, but the first game being the SEC opener, that means a lot to us.”