Guerry Clegg

Dogs can’t afford a hangover from just easing past Nicholls

Funny how one week can completely change perception in college football.

A week ago, Auburn was a team with no offensive identity and a team seemingly devoid of leadership from the top. Georgia, meanwhile, was a team on the rise, with a new coach, new quarterback and new identity.

Just a week later, the roles are almost reversed. No, Auburn’s coach and quarterback are not new. They’re just reborn. Meanwhile, Georgia is the team suddenly is struggling to find an identity and leadership on offense.

Yeah, it was only one game for each team, and one game against lesser opponents. It’s foolish to read too much into such games.

The trouble with playing these weaker teams is there are only two possible outcomes in terms of perception. Either win decisively, as Auburn did over Arkansas State, and a team has simply done what it was supposed to have done. Or struggle, as Georgia did against Nicholls, then it sounds an alarm.

Auburn did bolster hope for a better season, while Georgia did rekindle doubts about its heart. In both cases, though, their seasons will be defined more by what happens this Saturday than what happened last week. To survive in the SEC, a team must do two things. Win at home and beat lesser teams on the road.

Auburn’s next two games against Texas A&M and LSU — both at home — present an opportunity for the Tigers to regain national credibility.

The Tigers’ defense is clearly improved from last year. The fact that the offense finally looked fluid and explosive with Sean White at quarterback gives the Tigers hope. The young receivers proved they are capable of making plays. As the offense grows around White, the Tigers can be pretty good. Maybe very good. We will find out just how good Saturday night.

Ditto for Georgia. The Bulldogs have back-to-back SEC road games against Missouri and Ole Miss. Say whatever about Missouri having a strong defensive front and how tough it is to win in the SEC on the road. The fact is Mizzou is a bottom-tier SEC East team. A team with championship aspirations simply cannot lose this game. It would be a significant set-back for the program.

Georgia coach Kirby Smart talks about trying to change the culture of the Bulldogs’ program. That begins with winning the games they’re supposed to win. Since he was hired from Alabama last December, Smart has repeated several catch phrases. One of them is, “So what? Now what?” He’s trying to keep the team focused on the task at hand. Just as there was no carry-over from beating North Carolina in the season opener, there doesn’t have to be any hangover from nearly losing to Nicholls.

“My No. 1 focus is getting this team ready for this game,” Smart said. “And I want them to be prepared to play in a raucous environment because that’s what it is up there. They do a great job. They’ve got passionate fans, and we’ve got to turn our focus to playing this game.”

Contrary to what many Mark Richt critics think, Smart did not inherit a roster loaded with talent. They are neither deep nor especially strong on either line of scrimmage. That makes the intangibles matter even more. One of those intangibles is leadership. Georgia is lacking in that department. It doesn’t help that the coaching staff can’t decide whether to play a true freshman or a fifth-year senior at quarterback.

“It’s an evolution, leadership for this team,” Smart said. “It’s always been like that. Every team I’ve ever been on, we’ve had a different degree of leadership. I certainly think this one is struggling to find that. Guys get comfortable in their roles, start figuring out who they are. Some guys are more comfortable than others.”

Smart did express confidence in Sony Michel’s leadership. Even if Michel struggled to find a rhythm running the ball, he did make his presence felt on the sidelines.

“You need more guys comfortable speaking up, saying how they feel, make sure practices are done the right way,” Smart said. “What are your practice habits? How good are your look squads? And demand that that stuff gets done. As coaches, we can beat them over the head about it, keep screaming, but at the end of the day the ownership comes from the players. We’ve really tried to develop that over the last seven, eight, nine, ten months.”

It takes more than doing it at practice. It also takes tough games for teams to grow up and grow together. We’ll find out Saturday what Auburn and Georgia are made of.

Guerry Clegg: sports@ledger-enquirer.com, @guerryclegg

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