Given a day to reflect rather than react, some things still don’t add up.
The Georgia Bulldogs piled up 468 yards of total offense to South Carolina’s 297. They ran 90 offensive plays and five more in two overtimes. D’Andre Swift ran for 113 yards. Jake Fromm passed for 295 yards. Freshman George Pickens caught seven passes for 98 yards.
And yet, they lost, 20-17 in double overtime.
To Georgia coach Kirby Smart, the simple answer for Georgia’s 20-17 loss was the turnover margin. Four turnovers for the Bulldogs — three interceptions and one lost fumble — and zero take-aways.
“That’s two-fold,” Smart said. “We didn’t force any on defense, really didn’t cause any problems for them, then obviously we didn’t take care of the football.”
Smart’s math is obvious. For sure, those turnovers were critical. But they were losing this game and playing poorly when the turnover margin was just 1-0. Of course, that one was huge. A carelessly and poorly thrown ball by Jake Fromm was intercepted by Israel Mukuamu and returned 53 yards for a touchdown.
For most of the afternoon, that gift of seven points stood as the difference. The other three turnovers came when Georgia was threatening to score. A fumble at the South Carolina 30 and Mukuamu’s second interception at the Gamecocks’ 35 came in the fourth quarter. The final interception came in the first overtime when a perfectly thrown ball slipped right through the hands of Tyler Simmons, who appeared to have been peeking over his shoulder to elude the defender.
But there were plenty of mistakes that put the Bulldogs in that position to start with. Attribute some of it to questionable play-calling. Maybe not at much as the Twitter couch coaches would have you believe, but certainly enough to Smart and offensive coordinator James Coley to address.
“It comes down to execution,” Fromm said. “It’s not about X’s and O’s. It’s about the players playing on the field and being able to execute well and being able to play as well as we can play.”
That’s what a player would say, especially a leader. And Fromm wasn’t wrong. Despite the final numbers, South Carolina was the more physical team. The Bulldogs’ highly acclaimed offensive line got whipped.
Here’s another misleading statistic: The Bulldogs converted on 9 of 18 third downs. But Fromm was sacked three times and repeatedly was forced to throw some balls away.
It started early. There was a dropped pass by tight end Eli Wolf that would have been a first down ended one drive. A pass interference penalty on what would have been a third-down stop kept a South Carolina drive alive. Seven plays later, the Gamecocks scored on 46-yard touchdown pass from Ryan Hilinksi to Bryan Edwards on a busted coverage.
But coaching does matter, and the Bulldog staff was outwitted at every turn.
The most egregious came late in regulation. Georgia had tied the score and then got the ball back with a minute to play. Fromm drove the Bulldogs down to the South Carolina 38-yard line. From there, it would have been a 55-yard field goal try for Rodrigo Blankenship.
They threw an incomplete pass and then got flagged for illegal shift.
“When you play in the SEC, guys, every week you’ve got to be at your best. Because every team is one hundred percent capable of out-physicalling you and out-playing you,” Smart said. “And today, they played better than we did, and we didn’t do a good enough job as coaches helping them out.”
So where to from here? The optimist could note that the Bulldogs had a regular season letdown each of the past two seasons — against Auburn in 2017 and LSU last year — and still had chances to win the national championship each time. Several other teams have made the CFP after mid-season upsets: Ohio State in 2014; Alabama in 2014 and 2015; Clemson in 2016 and 2017; Oklahoma in 2017.
Maybe it will play out that way again. The Bulldogs can still win out, win the SEC Championship Game and make the College Football Playoff. At least theoretically.
“Our kids are resilient. Our kids will continue to fight,” Smart said. “We’ve got to look ourselves in the mirror as coaches, staff, and do a better job. We gotta help our kids out. I just told everyone in the locker room, you can’t hang your head. You gotta go get better. We gotta help them get better. The leaders in that room will do that.”
But the realist would note that they won’t win out if they play like they did against South Carolina. Maybe they will. Maybe they’ll be all the better because of this. But the undeniable truth remains: They put themselves in this spot.