As we were leaving church Sunday morning, a friend shook his head despondently over Georgia’s crushing loss to Ole Miss and said, “Give me some reason to be hopeful against Tennessee.”
Tall order, but here goes.
▪ It’s just one loss. Embarrassing, discouraging and perhaps revealing. But just one loss, just like the Alabama loss last year and the South Carolina loss in 2012.
Think back to this time last year. When Alabama humiliated Georgia on college football’s center stage, the present and the future looked bleak for the Bulldogs. They had to go to Knoxville to play Tennessee. Then Chubb tears up his knee on the first play from scrimmage.
Yes, the Bulldogs lost that game 38-31. But they were one dropped touchdown pass away from going to overtime. They were one fourth-down stop late in the first half from taking a 24-3 lead into halftime.
Despite the loss, the Dogs finished the season 10-3, disappointing enough to get Mark Richt fired, but still respectable.
The Ole Miss game was Georgia’s worst road loss since falling to South Carolina 35-7 in 2012. Remember what happened that season? The Dogs came within one play of beating Alabama and playing Notre Dame in the national championship game.
▪ You’re playing Tennessee, not Alabama. Tennessee is not Alabama or even Ole Miss. The Volunteers have played one great half in four games. They are far from invincible. As impressive as the Vols were in the second half against Florida, they have been inconsistent for most of the season.
▪ You’re playing at home, not on the road. It has to make a difference, especially with a freshman quarterback.
▪ Even if Nick Chubb can’t play, Elijah Holyfield got some valuable reps just in case he’s needed for depth at running back.
▪ The Dogs still can achieve all of their goals. They can win the SEC East by winning the rest of their conference games, a point that Kirby Smart undoubtedly has pointed out to his team. His catch phrase “So what? Now what?” applies to losing as well as it does winning.
So there. That’s the hopeful spin, and yes it is a spin.
But here’s the reality check. The Dogs still have a freshman quarterback, a rookie head coach, an offensive line that couldn’t out-muscle Nicholls State, receivers who struggled to get open and when they do drop too many passes, a virtually non-existent pass rush and cornerbacks who cannot cover big receivers.
The play-calling that was supposed to be an upgrade over Brian Schottenheimer has been equally questionable.
True enough, Alabama also is playing a true freshman at quarterback. But for one thing, Jalen Hurts is surrounded by more talent and leadership than is Jacob Eason. For another, Hurts is a dangerous runner, so defenses have to account for him.
Eason is very green. The arm strength is evident. But it takes much more than arm strength to play well in the SEC.
Then there’s Smart. I don’t care how many championships he won under Saban. I don’t care how excited the fan base was in April when they packed Sanford Stadium for G-Day. I don’t care (or even know, for that matter) how the 2017 recruiting class is shaping up.
The fact is Smart is a rookie head coach and he has never proved that he can handle a crisis. Make no mistake. The Ole Miss debacle constitutes — purely from a football standpoint — a crisis. How does Smart keep from losing the team’s focus, especially if they lose to Tennessee?
It has been noted that Saban lost seven games his first season at Alabama. One of those losses was to Louisiana-Monroe. But Saban had 13 years of head coaching experience. He took over a team that was 6-7 the year before. Also, those six losses were by a total of 36 points, only five more points than Smart’s single loss.
More importantly — a fact conveniently ignored — Kirby Smart is not Nick Saban. That doesn’t mean he won’t develop into a successful head coach. That doesn’t mean he’s in over his head. It simply means that for the first time in his career, Smart finds himself completely responsible for every aspect of the football program.
How Georgia responds this week to the Ole Miss loss will say as much about Smart as it will the players. If they’re competitive — win or lose — the outlook is hopeful. If they get blown out again, this season could get ugly.
Guerry Clegg: firstname.lastname@example.org, @guerryclegg