Georgia learned from Auburn loss, ready for rematch (and more)

Georgia head coach Kirby Smart walks off the field celebrating with his five-year-old son Andrew after beating Georgia Tech 38-7 on Saturday at Bobby Dodd Stadium.



Georgia head coach Kirby Smart walks off the field celebrating with his five-year-old son Andrew after beating Georgia Tech 38-7 on Saturday at Bobby Dodd Stadium.

The 2016 season ended with questions.

How does a coach hired to raise the bar and bring a punch-in-the-mouth edge with him from Tuscaloosa stumble to a 7-5 record, fall behind 45-0 at Ole Miss, lose to Vanderbilt, get slapped again in Jacksonville and lose a two-touchdown lead in the fourth quarter in its home stadium to Georgia Tech and wind up in ... the Liberty Bowl?

The 2017 regular season ended Saturday with belief.

Georgia isn’t the perfect football team. But there isn’t a dominating college football team in the country this season, but for most of this season -- with the exception of that one nightmarish day in Auburn -- it has played on a high enough level to allow fans to at least ponder an ending unlikely any in Athens in nearly four decades.

SEC championship followed by national championship.

“It was a different feeling at the start of the year,” inside linebacker Natrez Patrick said Saturday. “The vibe was different, the morale was different. Everybody was working harder. Everybody was working longer. Everybody just seemed to want it more.”

There’s more on the table now. The Bulldogs closed their most successful regular season since 2012 with a 38-7 dismantling over Georgia Tech. They finished 11-1. The SEC title game is next.

It’s a rematch vs. Auburn. Perfect.

Two weeks ago, Georgia rode into Auburn with a record of 9-0, then was flattened 40-17. The Bulldogs were manhandled physically on both sides of the line, creating doubts about the team’s legitimacy as an SEC champion and, it follows, the national-title picture.

We won’t know for certain how real this team is until next week. But Georgia players could have suffered a hangover after that game. Not only did they show some resilience, they annihilated Kentucky (42-13) and Tech by a combined score of 80-20. That says something, even if nobody will confuse the Wildcats and Jackets with national contenders.

“All we talked about after that (Auburn) game is playing with more discipline,” Georgia coach Kirby Smart said. “We tried to improve each week in practice and get better, and we have. I’m excited about the opportunity these guys have now. They’ve earned it.”

“It kind of grounded us,” Patrick said. “It showed us no one is going to just give it up for you.”

From Nick Chubb: “If anything, it just brought us back down and it helped focus us on what kind of team we are. We took a lot from it. We learned a lot.”

Georgia’s lead over Tech was an uncomfortable 14-7 after the Jackets scored a touchdown with 48 seconds left in the first half -- Ricky Jeune, the team’s best wide receiver, inexplicably being left wide open on third-and-goal from the 10, as defensive backs Malkom Parrish and Deandre Baker looked at each other as if to say, “Your guy.”

But Georgia scored the next 24 points. The defense limited Tech to 65 yards rushing (and in total offense) in the second half. It was the kind dominance they showed against Mississippi State, Tennessee, Missouri and Florida, the kind of performance they will need again to win the SEC title in Mercedes-Benz Stadium.

When the game ended, Smart hugged players, celebrate with fans and then lifted his 5-year-old son Andrew on his shoulders.  He smile like a giddy 5-year-old himself, like he just walked into a toy store before Christmas.

What a contrast. It was a year ago at this time when Tech coach Paul Johnson smacked the first-year Georgia coach in the season finale 28-27.  Smart’s defense allowed two fourth-quarter touchdowns in the last six minutes of the game, one drive stretching 94 yards.

A couple of things changed after that game. Smart decided coaches and players would spend more time preparing for the Tech game during the season. So occasional Mondays were picked out to work on defending the Jackets’ option offense.

“We didn’t do a good job closing it out, we didn’t prepare the right way,” he said. “If anything, I’m critical of myself for last year’s game. We didn’t want to feel that way again.”

There was one other significant change that foreshadowed the success of this season. A few weeks after that game, Chubb, Michel (a significant percentage of the offense) and linebackers Lorenzo Carter and Davin Bellamy (the potential dynamic duo of the defense) all announced they would bypass the NFL draft and return for their senior seasons.

Welcome to second-year coach nirvana.

The four players not only provided Smart with four extraordinarily talent in the lineup, it gave his team the leadership it needed.

And now here they are.

“It didn’t want to lose our last game and go out like that,” Chubb said.

They didn’t. Now there’s no reason to think it can’t continue. If all goes well, this could be Georgia’s first of three games in Atlanta: The Tech game, the SEC title and the college football championship, which also will be played in Mercedes-Benz Stadium.

The stadium sits about a 15-minute drive from where Patrick grew up.

“Our team believes,” he said. “We have a team full of seniors who are hungry and young guys who want to do it for the seniors. I feel like you can’t count us out.”

Earlier: Short takes: Seniors, Fromm give Georgia title hopes

Thanksgiving podcast: On Tech-Georgia, Falcons, Coppolella and food 

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