Guerry Clegg

Georgia’s win over Florida shows growth

Given the often unforgiving nature of college football’s system, losing a single game can ruin a season. But sometimes a loss, especially when followed by an opportunity for redemption, can help a team grow.

Time will tell just how costly Georgia’s loss to LSU two weeks ago will prove to be. But one thing was made abundantly clear in the Bulldogs’ 36-17 win over Florida Saturday. The Bulldogs just might be worthy of their lofty expectations after all.

This was not the overmatched and undermotivated Gator team that the Dogs humiliated last season. It wasn’t even the struggling team that lost at home to Kentucky two months ago. This was a much-improved Florida team, one that beat LSU just a week before the Tigers overpowered the Dogs, and seemingly worthy of its No. 9 ranking.

“We talked about earning this victory,” said Georgia coach Kirby Smart, who entertained his players after the game with a dance-like-nobody’s-watching celebration in the locker room. “It would not be bought on discount. We had to earn it. We did.”

Smart knows plenty of improvement must be done — or have an improbable series of events occur — for the Bulldogs to return to the College Football Playoff. The question isn’t so much whether Georgia is one of the four best teams in the country. Rather, it’s can enough improvement be made in four short weeks to find some way to beat Alabama in the SEC Championship Game. Aside from LSU, no other contender has to get through Alabama to earn one of the four -- well, let’s be real, one of the other three -- playoff spots.

That’s a worry for another day. For now, the Bulldogs are focused on just getting a little better.

They did just that Saturday. The off week gave them extra time to sort some things out. But it also allowed an extra week of criticism from media and fans.

“This group of men is as tough as they come,” Smart said. “They’re very resilient. They had to listen to two weeks to everything that was wrong with them, everything they did wrong, everything they hadn’t done right. That was probably a motivating factor because at the end of the day they get affected by what people say about them. We just went to work. We did improve in some areas. We are most undoubtedly a work in progress because we still have a lot of areas we need to improve in.”

The most obvious deficiency is run defense. Once again, the Bulldogs were gashed between the tackles. Too often, what should have been a two-yard gain ended in run of seven or eight yards. Injuries and inexperience certainly contributed. But much of the problem was just poor tackling.

“If you don’t strike the man in front of you, it doesn’t matter what Coach Smart or Coach (Mel) Tucker calls on defense,” said linebacker Monte Rice. “They can call the best plays, but if you’re not striking and getting off blocks, it doesn’t matter.”

Another problem area against LSU was third-down efficiency for the offense. They struggled again with that in the first half against Florida, converting on just two of six attempts. But the second half was a different story — eight attempts, six conversions.

It may not be coincidental that Jake Fromm played every snap at quarterback. In fact, at one point during a timeout, it was third-string and walk-on Matthew Downing taking warm-up throws with Fromm, not Justin Fields.

Fromm wouldn’t say whether he had discussed the increasingly awkward playing time arrangement with coaches after the LSU loss.

“I just knew I was going to go out and play some football today. That’s all I knew,” Fromm said.

Fromm looked increasingly comfortable as the game wore on. The more they asked him to do, the more he responded. He finished with three touchdown passes. The second one, to Jeremiah Holloman, came right after Florida scored on its first possession of the second half to take a 14-13 lead, a drive which Smart felt was pivotal.

The third TD pass went to Terry Godwin and again capped a drive that came after Florida had scored, this time on a field goal to cut Georgia’s lead to six, 23-17. The pass to Godwin came with a patched-up offensive line. Left tackle Andrew Thomas, who had left the game after rolling his ankle, returned when his backup Kendall Baker got hurt. Tight end Charlie Woerner lined up next to Thomas to provide to help. Fromm ignored the potential pressure from his blind side and threw a strike to Godwin sprinting left-to-right.

“Maaaan, Fromm, he doesn’t listen to outside noise,” Godwin said. “None of us do. The outside people, they’re going to talk. They’re not in with us so they’re not going through practice, the blood, sweat and tears that we do for each other. So we’re all there together picking each other up, even if I’m having a bad game or he’s having a bad game. We’re always going to pick each other up. That’s what this team is about. So we’re on his side telling him, ‘You’re doing a good job. Keep doing what you’re doing.’ ”

“We’ve got some tough kids,” said Smart, “and these kids are bought in to doing things the right way and continue to work hard. They’ll continue to get better.”

That post-game dance was well deserved.