Georgia has positioned itself for another playoff run

If we learned anything from Georgia’s narrow victory over Notre Dame, it’s that the Bulldogs we see are essentially the Bulldogs we’ve been seeing. I wouldn’t rate this as the best team of the Kirby Smart years – the 2017 bunch had generational talents in Roquan Smith, Nick Chubb and Sony Michel – but I’d put it a notch above last season’s. Given that the 2017 team played for the national title and its immediate successor just missed the College Football Playoff, that would mean …

Georgia is again of CFP caliber.

This might fall under the heading of dawg-bites-man – the Bulldogs have been ranked No. 3 all along – but it was nice to see it confirmed. Their first three games were the equivalent of NFL exhibitions, wherein little was risked and nothing proved. Notre Dame made them work, made them sweat and nearly made them lose. But they won. Their next chance to lose won’t come until November.

“If we’d lost this game, we still would have controlled our own destiny,” Kirby Smart said as Saturday night became Sunday morning. Then this: “We’ve got a lot of things to work on.”

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Not everything went right. Jake Camarda had a bad night punting. Tyler Simmons but handed Notre Dame its first touchdown by muffing a punt. D’Andre Swift got seven first-half carries while Jake Fromm kept throwing dinky passes. (Fromm completed 11 for just 59 yards, which is hard to do.) Even when it took a 13-point lead with 6:54 left, Georgia couldn’t kill the game.

“No mental errors,” receiver Lawrence Cager said. “We can’t afford mental mistakes.”

Yeah, but you can get away with them when you’re playing Vanderbilt. Notre Dame was different. Actions – and inactions – bore consequences. The Bulldogs trailed at halftime in Sanford Stadium for the first time since Nov. 12, 2016. They didn’t take the lead until 4:21 remained in the third quarter. They managed two touchdowns against three field goals. They finished with 339 yards; they’d entered averaging 565. Everything against the Fighting Irish had to be earned.

It was clear from Notre Dame’s postgame comments that it felt, for the first time in a while, that it had held up its end in such a game. Alabama beat the Irish 42-14 for the national championship in January 2013; Clemson dispatched them 30-6 in the CFP semi in December. I know some Georgia fans are worried because their team, playing before a wired home crowd, couldn’t overwhelm Notre Dame in similar fashion. Does that signal a weakness?

Probably not. The Irish had a point to prove – the point being, “Hey, we’re not as bad as we sometimes look” – and they managed the game nicely. Said Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly: “We’re a physical, fast team that’s persistent and will play for four quarters.”

Really, that’s what Georgia needed to face. It needed, for the first time since the lost lead against Alabama in the SEC championship, to be compelled to make plays. (We won’t count the Sugar Bowl against Texas, seeing as how the Bulldogs barely stirred.) The home side didn’t win pulling away – on the contrary, it was the visitors surging at the end – but Georgia did enough the second half to show us what it can do.

Smart: “Our depth helps us. We’ve got a lot of players on defense. I think we were fresher than they were in the fourth quarter.”

This isn’t necessarily Smart’s most gifted team, but it’s surely his deepest. The weight of Georgia’s numbers – both on offense and defense – did affect Notre Dame. Cager caught four second-half passes for 68 yards and an adroit touchdown, which made us wonder: Where was he earlier, when Fromm was doing all that dinking?

Asked earlier in the week what made Georgia so tough to beat, Kelly said, “The quarterback.” You knew this already, but Fromm is tremendous. If there’s a generational talent among the 2019 Bulldogs, he’s it. When he’s allowed to cut loose, Georgia is a better team. As it was, he completed 20 passes for 187 yards. He’s a splendid collegiate quarterback: Why not let him do the things quarterbacks are supposed to do? (I get that Smart is a run-first guy, but has he not been paying attention?)

With a month gone, Georgia is as we figured. It’s the third-best team in the land, still behind Clemson and Alabama, a hair ahead of LSU. There’s every reason to believe the Bulldogs can make the playoff, be it as the SEC champ or a one-loss conference runner-up. They can learn from what didn’t work against Notre Dame, but this lesson wasn’t the painful sort that comes with an “L” attached. They’re 4-0. They’re in good shape.