ATHENS -- In his first season as Georgia’s head coach, Kirby Smart oversaw a program that barely beat Nicholls (26-24), needed a late-game Hail Mary to win at Missouri, didn’t show up at Ole Miss (trailed 45-0 in third quarter), lost at home to Vanderbilt, face-planted on cue in Jacksonville , needed a fourth-quarter rally to win at Kentucky on a field goal with no time remaining and flubbed a two-touchdown lead with less than seven minutes left against Georgia Tech at home.
It was not a team that often looked prepared. It was not a group of players who seemed resilient. It was not a program whose arrow appeared to be pointing up.
This week, the season opens for real, if you don’t count the Appalachian State game, and most don’t. Georgia travels to Notre Dame. It’s the first game that really matters. It comes amid less than ideal circumstances: Quarterback Jacob Eason is out with a knee injury and freshman Jake Fromm, who came off the bench to win the opener, will make his first start in South Bend.
Most will focus on Fromm. But those seeking hints about the future probably should look elsewhere.
How will players respond to the adversity of losing a starting quarterback in the season opener? How will they handle playing in an historic stadium, several states to the north, on national television? How will they process being in a big game against the backdrop of the program's generally high-but-unfulfilled expectations?
Forget App State. App State means nothing. Too often last season, Georgia stumbled or cracked in big moments. What now?
Smart was asked how he perceived his team’s resilience in the aftermath of Eason's injury.
“Anytime you get injuries, especially at the quarterback position, it tests your mettle a little bit," he said. "We have tried to put them through adversity throughout camp, throughout the offseason. It’s the reason you do what you do.”
He had his go-to reference point ready: Ohio State, playing its third season under coach Urban Meyer in 2014, lost starting quarterback and Heisman Trophy candidate Braxton Miller to a shoulder injury in preseason camp. Backup J.T. Barrett, a freshman, took over and led the Buckeyes to an 11-1 record. The Barrett got hurt, breaking his ankle in the regular season finale against Michigan.
In came sophomore Cardale Jones, originally the No. 3 quarterback on the depth chart. Jones, who had never started before and threw two passes as a freshman -- completing one for three yards -- proceeded to lead wins over Wisconsin in the Big Ten Championship game (59-0) and then in the inaugural College Football Playoff wins over Alabama (42-35) in the semifinals and Oregon (42-20) in the title game.
Meyer isn't the most popular fellow in these parts, stemming from his days at Florida, and his resume when it comes to disciplinary matters is less than exemplary. But he did a remarkable job holding that team together. He made players believe their season wasn’t over despite a season-ending injury to the quarterback. Twice.
“They went all the way to their third guy, so it’s happened before,” Smart said. “It’s the reason why you scrimmage everybody and not just the (starters). I think our team is going to take it in stride. They get it. It’s not like everybody is gloom and doom because we did not get to see Jacob much this year.”
Smart deserves some credit for the way Georgia's 2016 season ended. The Bulldogs were sentenced to the Liberty Bowl, and the coach acknowledged game week , "(Players) can get lost in these games. 'What are we doing here?'" But they played impressively and beat TCU 31-23.
Notre Dame is not expected to be a power this season. This is a game Georgia can win if the defense plays up to form, the offense runs the ball with consistency, and they don’t turn it over. I know. That’s 99 percent of all football games on all levels. But how long has it been since Georgia kept things simple, clean and won a big game impressively?
“We had to build off hard times from last year,” senior linebacker Davin Bellamy said. “We had a lot of ups and downs, a lot of crazy games, a lot of crazy situations, and the way this team responded last year I feel like made us battle tested. So this is nothing new for us.”
Bellamy said Smart and coaches haven’t delivered any sort of unique message in regards to Eason’s injury.
“The message has been that nothing is going to change here,” he said. “We’re going to have a tough practice on Tuesday, a tough practice on Wednesday, no matter who we’re playing, and the ones twos, threes and fours all know that. There’s not a message that he has to preach. It’s already ingrained in us.”
It's a test for Georgia and therefore a test for Smart. A win would be a positive sign. A crumbling act would serve as an extension of last year.
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