The difference between Georgia’s first loss in 2017 and its first loss in 2018 comes down to two words, and no, those two words are not Roquan Smith or Sony Michel or Nick Chubb. Those two words: Notre Dame.
Georgia won in South Bend by a skinny point on Sept. 9, 2017. That narrow victory hoisted those Bulldogs – who didn’t play much of a regular-season schedule the next two months – to such great heights that they, and not similarly unbeaten Alabama, were ranked No. 1 by the College Football Playoff committee when its first slate was revealed on Halloween. Because, in those same rankings, Notre Dame was No. 3.
After their thumping here Saturday, the Bulldogs lined up to say that this 36-16 to LSU was exactly the same as their 40-17 loss at Auburn on Nov. 11 last year. Said Jake Fromm, the quarterback: “It gives us a great platform.”
Said Rodrigo Blankenship, the kicker and, on this day, a runner (though not for long): “We know if we win the rest of our games we will get where we want to go.”
Said Kirby Smart, the head coach: “We lost (again) to a team in the (SEC) West, on the road. Everything’s still in front of us.”
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Once again, that’s true. It’s just not as true as it was 13 months ago.
Beating Notre Dame conferred on Georgia the mantle of legitimacy. These Bulldogs bear no such imprimatur. Of their six victories, none is over a team above 500. Their four conference victories are over opponents that are a collective 3-11 in SEC play. They were exposed Saturday by an LSU team that had just lost to Florida, which is lugging a loss to Kentucky. They were beaten by 20 on a day when they were favored by a touchdown.
Put simply, Georgia has played more than half its schedule and nobody is sure how good it is. Said Smart: “We haven't gotten out of this team what we need to get out of them.”
The 2018 Bulldogs are living off last season, which saw them play for the national championship, and their recruiting rankings. They’re one of the nation’s four most gifted teams. That they haven’t always played to those gifts is partly – maybe mostly – a function of going six games without a test. When you’ve never been filled with the fear of losing, your attention to detail doesn’t get honed to the sharpest edge. Maybe it was inevitable that, come the first real stress test, Georgia wobbled all over creation.
Fromm missed an open Mecole Hardman in the first quarter, underthrew Demetris Robertson off a flea-flicker that became a bobbled incompletion, was intercepted twice and had his worst day as a collegian. The defense wasn’t aligned for one of LSU’s four successful fourth-down tries. Justin Jefferson, who caught six passes for 106 yards, was left uncovered for a galvanizing 50-yard reception. (Cornerback Tyson Campbell had blitzed; no Bulldog rotated in coverage.)
The biggest offensive series of the day – at the LSU 38 with Georgia down 10 in the fourth quarter – began with a snuffed jet sweep to Hardman and a 4-yard gain by third-string tailback Brien Herrien. (Where were D’Andre Swift and Elijah Holyfield?) Then Fromm took a sack that pushed the Bulldogs beyond Blankenship’s range. After a penalty for delay, Georgia punted from the LSU 48. Holy mackerel.
For the first time since Smart’s crazy-quilt maiden season, his team didn’t appear well coached. Heck, he got outflanked – here’s a sentence rarely typed – by Ed Orgeron. And the fake field goal that saw holder Jake Camarda flip the ball over his shoulder to Blankenship was simply wrong, no matter how much Smart sought to defend it.
LSU led 3-0. Georgia had responded by powering 71 yards, all on the ground, 69 of those gained by Swift/Holyfield, before Fromm threw two incompletions. A tie on the road with 3½ minutes left in the first quarter is not a terrible thing. But Georgia’s coaches had, as coaches will, Seen Something On Film. If the Tigers arrayed themselves in a certain way, the Bulldogs would try their little fake.
Said Smart: “It was a look we wanted. We thought it was going to be perfect. They had one guy out there and we were going to block him. A couple of their guys ended up not rushing. They rushed every other time and (the defender who charged the addled Blankenship) fell into the play and made it.”
Then: “If it doesn't work, it was a bad call. I'm the first to admit that. But we felt it was there and thought it would be a big momentum play for us. I didn't think that was the end of the momentum. It just hurt us at the time certainly.”
The game wasn’t tied. LSU was still ahead and buzzing. The next five possessions: LSU touchdown, Georgia punt, LSU field goal, Georgia punt, LSU field goal. It was 16-0 at the half. Those three unbanked Georgia points changed the game forever.
And then there was – and remains – the issue of Justin Fields. He took a few snaps as quarterback, none memorable. He carried once for three yards. He threw no passes. He wasn’t a weapon. He wasn’t really a change-up. He was nothing of consequence. “Look, there’s no fear in letting Justin go into the game and play quarterback and throw the ball,” Smart said, prompting the obvious question: So why, with Fromm reeling, didn’t he?
It was never going to be easy to manage two big-name quarterbacks. Nick Saban has bristled over the issue in Tuscaloosa, and Clemson saw Kelly Bryant quit the team after being demoted behind Trevor Lawrence. That said: When we speak of Georgia’s stockpiled talent, the freshman Fields might be first among equals. If he’s having no impact, that’s a failure of coaching.
So long as the Bulldogs were unbeaten, it was easy to pretend that the status quo was good enough. After losing by 20 to the men of Coach O, it’s clear that Georgia must get better. It’s less clear whether this team can get where it wants to go. It hasn’t beaten anybody any good. When finally it ran into an opponent with similar resources, it lost by 20.
As convenient as it is to insist the same thing happened last year, it really didn’t. From September on, the 2017 Bulldogs had Notre Dame as proof of their bona fides. It’s mid-October, and the 2018 crew has nothing.