One last question, coach, before you leave the Loveliest Village on The Plains with this hairy 21-14 victory over Auburn: In your locker room address afterward, did you even acknowledge winning a third straight Eastern title, or celebrate it at all? 

“I  don’t think so,” Smart said, with video cameras and voice recorders rolling. “I don’t think I said anything.”

“I told them ‘How ‘bout them (bleeping) Dawgs?’ That’s what I told them, excuse my language.”

Learning that football coaches regularly go full longshoreman when talking to their team is hardly a revelation. And anyone offended is welcomed to spend their Saturdays at their nearest ashram, or watching Disney Plus. 

What was striking was Smart’s determination to downplay the smaller landmarks on the way to the hoped-for final destination. Message from the top: We are beyond getting worked up about winning half a conference.

The Georgia Bulldogs makes it to the SEC Championship three straight years with a win against the Auburn Tigers Saturday night at Jordan-Hare Stadium. Head coach Kirby Smart talks about the challenge of playing in Auburn and the team's effort to fight back after the Bulldogs held a 21-0 lead through the second half. (Video by Ryon Horne, Photos by Curtis Compton and Bob Andres)

Saturday was a nice, if overly dramatic, win for the Bulldogs, harder than it should have been by half.

Sure, in getting out to a 21-0 lead through three quarters, they might have taken a match-up fraught with nervous anticipation and turned it into just another day on the victory assembly line. But that’s not how these ‘Dogs operate.

Instead they spent the last 10 minutes in scramble mode. An Auburn team that couldn’t get within hollering distance of the end zone for three quarters went on scoring drives of 75 and 57 yards. It had to be denied on fourth down twice in the final 144 seconds of the game. The first of those was a mishandled screen pass that gave Smart only marginal comfort. “I can’t say that we stopped them. We got them to fourth down and they gave us gift,” he said. 

In other words, it was a clincher quite in keeping with the theme of a season. That’s a season  that has taken Georgia exactly to where it wants to be at this stage of proceedings - but seldom comfortably.

This is a team that can’t get in touch with its inner dominance, if such a trait exists. And time is fast escaping.

In the short term, let the record show that Georgia players did allow themselves some joy in winning their side of the conference standings again.

From running back D’Andre Swift: “(Getting back to the SEC Championship game) is not guaranteed, so this team competed today knowing what we had to do to get back to it. its great for this team and this university, and we’re definitely excited for it.”

From quarterback Jake Fromm: "I think it’s special. For us, I think it speaks a lot about this football class (of 2017), the guys we have in the locker room, the leaders we had before. For us, you know, it’s about a lot of hard work. We put a lot in and we think it’s special.”

Georgia Bulldogs quarterback Jake Fromm (11) with his brother, Auburn Tigers tight end Tyler Fromm (85). Bob Andres / robert.andres@ajc.com
Photo: Bob Andres/robert.andres@ajc.com

Smart conceded that a third SEC East title was “a hell of an accomplishment; I’m proud of our guys.”

But, he added, “That’s not what it’s about.

“The goal for us was to continue to get better, grow, play in a tough environment. It really wasn’t about the SEC East.”

If those be the goals for a mid-November day in Auburn, did Georgia reach them?

For three quarters, there appeared several green shoots of new growth. 

Much of the first half Saturday was dedicated to probing and field-position posturing, with a couple offensive moments demanding to be remembered.

On first down near midfield, six minutes left in the first quarter, Georgia took a shot. Praise the heavens, Georgia took a shot.

Eschewing the expected run, Fromm dropped back. His vaunted offensive line held, his pocket clean of any Auburn lint. The Bulldogs’ Dominick Blaylock had time to run his straight-line pattern downfield and separate himself from Tigers sophomore DB Christian Tutt. Without breaking stride, Blaylock gathered in a pass as perfect as any thrown and completed the 51-yard touchdown circuit.

And once more, Georgia showed one of the best two-minute drills in the business. Fromm – with 42 rushing yards from Swift – led the Bulldogs on an 81-yard touchdown drive in just 59 seconds near the close of the first half. The final play was a picture of control and confidence – Fromm rolling to his right, hitting Brian Herrien at the Auburn 8 and raising his arms in celebration as soon as the ball was caught. He knew Herrien was as good as in the end zone.

Georgia was able to get some traction on its running game, Swift gaining 106 yards against as good a defensive line as the Bulldogs are likely to face in a bigger game - or games - to come. Fromm threw 28 times (completing but 13, for 110 yards) and was sacked but once. Georgia’s offensive line occasionally played like the strength it is.

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One big area of growth is Georgia’s respect for the ball. It has been 35 days since the Bulldogs turned it over four times in a loss to South Carolina and just as many days since they’ve committed another turnover.

The defense did what it was supposed to do with an Auburn offense replete with issues - until those two fourth-quarter drives. The War Eagles still were able to churn out 86 offensive plays, a high in the Smart Era. Give it some credit, I guess, for those two stops at the end. Although Smart wasn’t exactly in the mood to do so.

“I feel like we have some good players and they play better when their back is against the wall,” he said. “But that's not what it should be, right? It should be you play your best all the time, not when you get your backs against the wall.

“Why do we have to be in that situation to end the game? Because we lost momentum, we weren't able to move the ball, and they got momentum back and we couldn't turn it until the punt and the stops.”

Worrisome was the three straight three-and-outs by the Georgia offense in the fourth quarter that fed so much Auburn hope.

And while Bulldogs punter Jake Camarda owns an undeniably impressive leg, nobody wants to see him unsheathe it 11 times, as he did Saturday. 

This much we know for certain, the Bulldogs survived and advanced. It isn’t always art, but it is enough to get them to a Dec. 7 date at Mercedes-Benz Stadium.

And gained here Saturday, better late than never, was a new, blue rallying cry for the season.

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About the Author

Steve Hummer
Steve Hummer
Steve Hummer writes sports features for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. He covers a wide range of sports and topics.
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