Kirby Smart has made even a dull spring game at Georgia a big deal

Georgia head coach Kirby Smart high-fives fans entering Sanford Stadium in the Dawg Walk before the Bulldogs’ annual “G-Day” spring game Saturday in Athens.



Georgia head coach Kirby Smart high-fives fans entering Sanford Stadium in the Dawg Walk before the Bulldogs’ annual “G-Day” spring game Saturday in Athens.

Five months after its last home game in Athens (Kentucky, flattened), four months after its first SEC championship in 12 years (Auburn, smothered), three months after the pass-the-paperbags-we’re-hyperventilating carnival ride through the college football playoffs (Oklahoma, tipped. Alabama … DAMN’T!), Georgia played a little football Saturday.

It wasn’t a real game. It was “G-Day.”

That’s capital “G” for Georgia. Microscopic “g” for game.

Vince Dooley cared so little about this annual scrimmage that he routinely picked celebrity coaches to run the two teams so he could relax in the press box, maybe have a sandwich and only mildly pay attention. One time he picked Ted Turner. One time he picked Lewis Grizzard. One time he picked ol’ “Slick” Simon Selig, who donated $1 million to the school, and because of that, in Dooley’s words a couple of years ago, “Oh, he could call any play he wanted.”

Pretty sure we’ll never see Kirby Smart picking celebrity coaches. The Georgia coach wouldn’t let anybody call any play or make any decision for anything this side of a game of cornhole. As the Red and Black teams alternated possessions, Smart walked from one side of the field to the other, wearing Switzerland white, barking instructions.

Everything is important now.

Maybe that’s why an estimated 82,000 people showed up for Saturday’s scrimmage. Maybe that’s why nearly a quarter of a million fans have shown up for three spring games since Smart’s arrival, including an SEC-record 93,000 in 2016. Maybe that’s why Georgia made it to the national championship game in Smart’s second season as head coach -- leading 20-7 in the third quarter but losing 26-23 in overtime because, well, there are limits to sports joy in the state of Georgia.

That expectations are high in Athens is a decades-old tradition. That the expectations have some substance behind them these days is a relatively new phenomenon. Georgia’s over/under win projection for the regular season is 10-1/2 (out of 12) and, with their schedule, there’s no reason they shouldn’t at least make it back to the SEC Championship game.

This assumes the Bulldogs look better on offense in the fall than they did to end the spring. In the annual game-doesn’t-matter, the Black team (mostly quarterbacked by freshman Justin Fields) defeated the Red team (Jake Fromm) 21-13.

Statistics don’t matter in exhibitions. But since 82,000 people showed up and you need something to fret over between now and September, here goes: Fromm (19-for-38) threw two interceptions, including a pick-six, against the No. 1 defense, but rescued his day with a late-game touchdown pass. Fields (18-for-33) looked like a freshman with some good, some bad and some good against the No. 2 defense and threw one interception. Each had a touchdown pass.

The two defenses were credited with 11 sacks (seven on Fields). But that was at least in part because of offensive inefficiency and predictably with the lack of many running plays.

Don’t panic. It’s only April. Wait until at least June.

“Sloppy at times,” Smart said of his offenses. “I thought both quarterbacks, their receivers had some drops. But we’re trying to get them to gain some confidence. We’re trying to get those guys to push through that stuff. I thought both quarterbacks managed the huddle.

What we saw Saturday means even less than the season opener against Austin Peay on Sept. 1. Both offenses were largely ineffective. The day’s highlight probably came at halftime, when new Georgia basketball coach Tom Crean took the field and was given the microphone so he could address the crowd. He proceeded to do Tom Crean things.

His three-and-a-half-minute pep talk began with, “I’m standing in front of the greatest fans of any college of university!” He lauded the school, the students and the basketball program. He finished with, “We are not here to mess around!”

Unlike his introductory news conference, he was on the clock, so he cut it off after three and a half minutes. But canceling the second half wouldn't have been the worst thing. Even by spring-football standards, there was nothing extraordinary, starting with quarterback play.

Fromm threw the three most significant passes in the first half, but none of them ended well. A deep sideline pass intended for Jayson Stanley was dropped in the first quarter. On the next play, he overthrew Mecole Hardeman, and the pass was picked off by Deandre Baker and returned 32 yards for a Black team touchdown. Fromm later threw a near-perfect 44-yard pass to Riley Ridley in the end zone, but Ridley couldn’t hold onto the ball as he went to the ground.

Fields threw a 13-yard TD pass to freshman wide receiver Matt Landers in he third quarter. Fromm threw a 57-yard touchdown pass to Ridley with 1:57 remaining. People will want to turn this into a quarterback controversy, but let’s not go there.

Play overall was sloppy, but Smart didn’t show concern: “We had some young guys busted up left and right, and I'm almost so glad they did because now we're getting to teach from it, and when we go back, and we have to do it for real the next time, they will have a little less butterflies.”

The Dogs should be past basking in the afterglow of last season. But there was some appropriate reflection, with Nick Chubb and Sony Michel walking onto the field carrying the Rose Bowl trophy and “calling the Dogs.”

Smart’s popularity has never been higher. He and the players entered Sanford Stadium through the stands, the coach high-fiving fans as he descended the steps to the field. Why, he was asked, have three spring games drawn so many?

“I just think people like Georgia football,” he said.

Even exhibitions.

Fresh pod: Falcons general manager Thomas Dimitroff on the latest, "We Never Played The Game" podcast.

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