An imperfect UGA wins by 45, which says something

All Georgia had to do was beat the worst Georgia Tech team of this century, get nobody else hurt and head home to prep for the Atlanta game that matters. Such, though, has been the Bulldogs’ season that even victories, of which there have been 11, come with angst.

They defeated Tech 52-7, but not before turning the ball over three times and botching an onside kick, and the second half saw tailback D'Andre Swift get injured and George Pickens, the best of their remaining receivers, get ejected.

For the record, Georgia is 11-1. It will play LSU for the SEC title next weekend. If the playoff started today – it won’t, but let’s pretend – the Bulldogs would face Ohio State in a semifinal. Such an achievement would leave Dawg teeth gnashing, seeing as how the Buckeyes’ quarterback is Justin Fields, who left Athens because he couldn’t dislodge Jake Fromm, who has spent the season’s second half looking less like a top-shelf player and more like a guy named … er, Jake.

Maybe this is the price of being good for three years running. Nit-pickers take dead aim. That said, some of these nits are salient points. The Bulldogs figured to have only three chances to lose – against Notre Dame, Florida and Auburn. They won all three, though none by more than seven points. That should have meant 12-0, right? Nope. Georgia lost at home Oct. 12 to South Carolina, which finished 4-8.

ExplorePhotos from Georgia’s win

THAT said … isn’t winning the name of the game? Isn’t 11-1 in the league where It Just Means More something to celebrate? It should be, yes. But the playoff has skewed college football. Everything is an eyeball test, and Georgia doesn’t set many eyes dancing. It’s a buttoned-down team. It plays defense. It runs the ball. It wears opponents down. (That describes what happened to Tech on Saturday, same as it happened a half-dozen other times this year.)

Maybe style points shouldn’t matter, but sometimes they do. Ohio State leaped TCU and Baylor to make the first College Football Playoff by beating Wisconsin 59-0 for the Big Ten championship behind No. 3 quarterback Cardale Jones. In another year, Georgia hanging half a hundred (plus two) on Tech might grab someone’s attention. Not this year. Tech’s 3-9. This marked the second time in three weeks these Jackets had lost by 45 points at Bobby Dodd Stadium.

“We expected to win this game,” said Kirby Smart, Georgia’s coach. “We expected to dominate this game.”

That’s what happened, though Tech, given the gulf in talent, was thrilled to be within 10 points at halftime. Geoff Collins, the Jackets’ salesman coach, was so ecstatic he dropped and did pushups when his team recovered that onside kick. That was another gaffe in Georgia’s lamentable second quarter. Dominick Blaylock muffed a punt. Swift lost a fumble. Rodrigo Blankenship missed a kick.

Fromm had another in a series of pedestrian starts: Nine of his first 13 passes were incompletions. His second half was better. He finished with four touchdown passes, a career best. And yet: This was his fourth consecutive game of completing fewer than half his passes. (He was 14-for-29.) Something’s off. Fromm looks hesitant in a way he never did as a freshman/sophomore. Case study: The sack he took near half’s end when Georgia was racing/botching the clock.

Fromm will face LSU without first-choice wideout Lawrence Cager, who suffered an apparent season-ending injury in practice this week, and Pickens, whose ejection carries a first-half ban for the next game. (Pickens likewise was suspended for the first half of this game for violating a team rule. He’s not much for first halves.)

“I don’t think it’s a problem,” Fromm said. “I think it’s an opportunity for guys to step up and make plays.”

As for Swift, hurt while taking a direct snap on goal-to-go in the third quarter, Smart said: “He has a shoulder contusion. He should be fine. I think he’ll be back.”

ABC cameras caught Fromm praying with Swift on the Georgia bench. “He’s a great teammate,” Fromm said. “I love him to death. I hope God heals him in a supernatural way.”

We’d be remiss if, at the completion of a third 11-1 regular season in succession, we didn’t mention that these Bulldogs have fashioned one of the great trienniums in program annals. There’s only one that was better, and you know it well. From 1980 through 1982, Georgia was 32-1 over three regular seasons, 33-3 all told; it won three SEC titles and a national championship. It also had the greatest player in the history of college football. Wish I could recall his name.

Apart from the Herschel – there it is! – years, this is as good a three-year run as the Red & Black has seen. Mark Richt’s teams of 2002 through 2004 were 31-5 in regular-season games, 34-6 overall; they won the SEC East twice and the SEC once. Georgia’s eminence in the ’40s was interrupted by World War II. The 11-1 team of 1942 won the Rose Bowl; the 11-0 team of 1946 claimed an ex post facto national title. Charley Trippi played on both; in the interim, he served in the Air Force. Georgia’s best pre-Herschel three-year span was from ’46 through ’48 – 25-5 in regular-season play, 27-6-1 overall, two SEC titles.

The three-year worksheet on Smart’s Bulldogs: 33-3 in regular-season games, 35-6 overall. They’ve won three SEC East titles, one SEC championship. They were 2017 co-national champs. (Or would’ve been had college football not gotten pushy about breaking ties.) They were the No. 3 seed in the 2017 playoff. They missed last year’s CFP by one spot. They’re No. 4 now.

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We’ve spent the past few weeks carping about Fromm’s regression and offensive coordinator James Coley’s lack of imagination, but the reality is that the Bulldogs are again on the prowl for a national title. Are they good enough to beat LSU? If Swift is healthy and Fromm remembers who he was, sure. This might only be the third-best Georgia team of the past three years, but that doesn’t mean it can’t win the SEC and make the playoffs and do damage once there.

Invited to reflect on the regular season, Smart demurred. “All of our goals are still ahead of us,” he said, and he’s right. Going 11-1 merely puts you in position. Blemishes and all, that’s where Georgia is – positioned to do great things.