Georgia’s game Saturday night against Notre Dame didn’t play out the way most expected.The No. 3 Bulldogs were favored by two touchdowns over the No. 7 Fighting Irish, and many thought the margin would be wider than that. However, the final result turned out to be a 23-17 Georgia victory where Notre Dame’s bid for a winning touchdown fell short in the final minute.
However, while a close win wasn’t necessarily the expected outcome, it might end up being the best-case scenario for head coach Kirby Smart and the Bulldogs.
After all, what benefit did three season-opening blowouts have for this team? Sure they cruised to a 3-0 record, but there’s not much that can be learned from beating up on Vanderbilt, Murray State and Arkansas State.
But when a team is stressed like the Bulldogs were against the Irish, that’s when a team’s true character and fortitude comes to the forefront.
“You don’t really know what’s inside you, in life or football, until you get tested,” Smart said after the game. “I thought we got tested tonight. We found out a lot about our team. We’re far from perfect, and we’ve got to get a lot better, but they’ll fight you, man. They’ll fight you over and over again.”
A tense game like this will pay benefits for the Bulldogs down the line in regular season SEC play, as well as potential SEC championship and College Football Playoff games. For proof, look no further than the 2018 Georgia team.
That squad cruised to a 6-0 record, winning each game by at least 14 points. The Bulldogs sleepwalked at points in that stretch, but they were never truly threatened.
So when they were punched in the mouth by an equally talented LSU team in Baton Rouge, they had no response. In their first game against a team on their level, the Bulldogs were steamrolled 36-16.
In the two games after that LSU contest, Georgia faced Florida and Kentucky in games that were fairly close at halftime. But the Bulldogs were able to hunker down and rally, pulling away in the second half to win comfortably in Jacksonville and Lexington.
Now a close game like the Notre Dame game doesn’t guarantee an undefeated season. That same 2018 Georgia team also crumbled in the second half in the SEC championship against Alabama after holding a 14-point lead.
But a hard-fought game against the Irish will go a long way in building comfort and confidence in those situations for this year’s squad, particularly for players who haven’t been in that spot before.
“You look inside yourself when you get tested, and there were some guys that had to look inside themselves,” Smart said. “They had not been tested like that. How are they going to respond? They came out fighting.”
For example, Georgia defenders Travon Walker, Nakobe Dean, Nolan Smith and D.J. Daniel all saw extensive playing time against the Irish. The three true freshmen and the junior college transfer were thrown into the fire and fared well, with Smith playing a role in blowing up the final fourth-down prayer for Notre Dame to seal the win.
This close win doesn’t guarantee Georgia anything moving forward. Just because the Bulldogs came out on top on Saturday night by no means assures them of winning every close game going forward.
But it does give them the experience and confidence of going toe-to-toe with a top-10 team on a big stage and getting a win in a tightly-contested contest. That’s something that would not have happened had the game been a blowout like many expected.