Georgia is 3-0. But it’s a September 3-0. Two of those wins came over opponents (Appalachian State, Samford) that were paid $1.75 million in exchange for a likely beating in Athens, and the SEC schedule is devoid of such checkbook assurances.
Georgia Tech is 1-1. It would be 2-0 if not for a turnover and a defensive collapse against Tennessee. The offense has piled up 78 points and 745 rushing yards in two games despite losing its starting quarterback and two best running backs, but the resume is too short to make assumptions because a third game was voided by a hurricane.
“We’re still trying to gauge and prod and figure out who we are,” coach Paul Johnson said Tuesday. “We'll find out on Saturday.”
Yes. It's full-exposure week. College football season begins in earnest, with most SEC and ACC teams beginning conference play.
Johnson has to impress his boss. Smart has to impress everybody else.
It would seem there’s significantly less pressure on Johnson than Smart. He has a nice resume as a head coach at Tech: an ACC championship (later vacated by the NCAA), four division titles, two Orange Bowl appearances, three Top 25 finishes (including No. 8 in 2014), a near .600 winning percentage and three wins over Georgia in Athens. He's at a program not accustomed to such success.
Johnson also appears to have an ally in new athletic director Todd Stansbury, who was hired about this time a year ago. Stansbury is working to upgrade facilities and going through Johnson’s wish list. But the Jackets have not been a factor in the ACC race the past two seasons, and there’s a general rule in sports: For every facilities/financial upgrade, there’s going to be an increased expectation level.
Few expect Tech to finish ahead of Miami or Virginia Tech in the ACC’s Coastal Division. But Tech was out of the ACC race too early the past two seasons, finishing 1-7 in 2015 and 4-4 last season after a three-game skid (Clemson, Miami at home, Pittsburgh) dropped the Jackets to 1-3.
The loss to Mark Richt and the Hurricanes included two early fumbles that led to Miami touchdowns and a 28-7 deficit. The lost to Pitt may have been worse: The Jackets led 34-27 lead going into the final minutes, allowed a 74-yard touchdown on a tipped pass, then basically handled the Panthers the winning field goal when Johnson inexplicably decided to go for it on fourth-and-1 from his own 34, only to see Dedrick Mills get stuffed at the line of scrimmage.
These meltdowns are not easily forgotten.
Tech opens ACC play with home games against two beatable opponents (Pittsburgh, North Carolina), before a five-game stretch that includes Miami (road), Clemson (road) and Virginia Tech (home). Johnson isn’t sure what to think of his team after a double-overtime loss to Tennessee and a win over Jacksonville State. The cancellation of the Central Florida game led to more rest and practices, but fewer game conditions to evaluate players.
“When you’ve got a lot of young guys who haven’t played, you lose those game reps that you don’t get in practice,” he said. “You try, but it’s not the same.”
The pressure on Smart is more pronounced. The Bulldogs are favored to win the SEC East. Florida and Tennessee, their seemingly strongest competition, played a sloppy game last week in Gainesville. Mississippi State, Saturday’s opponent, destroyed LSU last week, but MSU is a much stronger team in Starkville than on the road, and people were overrating LSU after wins over BYU and Chattanooga.
Smart needed the win at Notre Dame on his resume. But lose to any of the next four opponents – Mississippi State, Tennessee, Vanderbilt, Missouri – before Florida week and watch how quickly the good vibes go away.
Safety J.R. Reed gets it.
"I know some people thought Notre Dame was a statement game,” he said. "But I think this is a statement game for us, to see where our team is really at, to see how we’ll play in the SEC."
Reed said game preparations for Mississippi State aren't any different than they were for Samford, but, "In the back of your mind you think, ‘Hey, this is the SEC. We’ve got to win.' If we want to go anywhere, bowl-game-wise, playoff-wise, we have to play well on Saturday.’
"It (feels) different. A little bit more excitement. A little bit more heart pounding. And I’m ready to go."
The Notre Dame game showed the Dogs can win a difficult road game (albeit in a stadium half-filled with Georgia fans). But beating Mississippi State is needed to jump-start their conference season.
"I'm not going to sit here and say we've arrived because I don't think that's the case," Smart said. "I think we've improved. I think we have to continue to improve to beat the teams we have on our schedule."
Georgia and Georgia Tech each play eight consecutive conference games starting this week. Soon, nobody will have to guess how good these two are.
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