Consider this a public service. I will not pick Georgia to beat Alabama in the SEC championship game, for which both have qualified. Two reasons: First, the Bulldogs lost by 20 at LSU, where the Crimson Tide just won by 29; second, have you SEEN Bama this year?
So there you go, Bulldogs. I’m your doubter, your naysayer, your critic. I’m everything you cited as inspiration for the 34-17 dismissal of Kentucky here Saturday, after which all Georgia players made available to the media cited those who’d Counted Them Out.
Said D’Andre Swift, who rushed for a career-best 156 yards: “People were doubting us. We silenced the critics.”
Said defensive tackle Jonathan Ledbetter: “This season the defensive line has taken a lot of criticism, but we made it.”
Said Elijah Holyfield, who rushed for a career-best 115 yards: “We had a chip on our shoulder. Practices this week were very physical. You had two teams (meaning the running backs and the D-line) with chips on their shoulders.”
Said quarterback Jake Fromm, contrasting Georgia’s consecutive SEC East titles: “This one has been more of a battle, so to speak. A lot of people doubted us.”
We pause for a reality check. At the SEC Media Days in July, Georgia received 271 first-place votes – 285 ballots were cast – to win the East. (Alabama received a mere 263 first-place votes in the West.) Starting with the preseason Associated Press poll, here’s where the Bulldogs were ranked week by week: Third, third, third, second, second, second, second, eighth, seventh and sixth. See a lot of doubt there?
Said coach Kirby Smart: “We’re a work in progress. We make things extremely difficult at times. But we keep playing.”
Then: “It’s not been easy. It’s never easy. People sometimes get spoiled when you win.”
There’s no doubt that has happened. Georgia won big last year, which wasn’t expected, and was expected to win big again. For nearly a month – from the South Carolina game through Vanderbilt – the Bulldogs appeared to be coasting. In Baton Rouge, they ran across the first opponent that could approximate their talent and panicked. They were better against Florida in Jacksonville. (Said Smart then: “They had two weeks to hear about everything they’ve done wrong, everything that’s wrong with them.”) They were better still against Kentucky.
Let’s be honest, though: Georgia would have had to mess up royally to lose to anybody else in the East. The Bulldogs’ average margin of victory in six division games was 21.3 points. Their average margin last year was 29.2. Over 12 games over two seasons, the closest any Eastern opponent has come is within 14 points. Last year’s team routed all East comers by a lot; this year’s team routed those teams by a bit less. Still won, though.
When you dominate a division the way Georgia has, it’s partly because the dominator, duh, is really good – and also because the also-rans aren’t. Kentucky this year was the one challenger that maximized resources, and yet the Wildcats had no chance Saturday. Benny Snell and Josh Allen, their two best players, were neutralized.
The Bulldogs’ backs reported that they believed they’d been overlooked in comparison to Snell, which was a bit silly. (Holyfield and Swift have 1,296 yards between them; Snell has 1,008 by himself.) Smart proclaimed that Georgia’s offensive linemen had “a chip on their shoulder when you get a chance to go against the leading sack guy in the SEC.” (Allen had no sacks. He did recover two fumbles.)
The greater point is that the East, while better last year than this, remains light years behind the SEC West. Credit Georgia for doing what it needed to do – what it was predicted to do, we remind you – but Florida and Kentucky aren’t LSU and Alabama. The Bulldogs saw LSU and lost 36-16 after trailing 20-0. They’ll see Bama on Dec. 1.
Said Smart of the season: “You can make it about expectations, which nobody at Georgia is going to run from. I just want the upside to come faster. We’re a young team.”
Yes. As noted last week, these Bulldogs – who are, we stipulate, among the nation’s half-dozen best teams – are the bridge from last year’s almost-national champs to 2019 and beyond. Many are wondering if the current Crimson Tide is Nick Saban’s finest creation. This Georgia will not be Smart’s magnum opus, and not because of a failure of coaching or playing. This team, good as it is, isn’t yet primed.
Smart again: “We grind out a lot of threes (field goals) when we should be scoring touchdowns. We’ve got to ask, ‘How can we clean this up; how can we clean up the goal-line situations?’ – because that’s going to come back to bite us.”
The part about the doubts and the naysaying and the criticism surely trickles down from Smart. Coaches aren’t above using the slightest of slights as motivational levers. Still, nobody of sound mind has suggested Georgia is anything less than a very strong team. The thing about winning big is that you’re expected to win bigger and look majestic while doing it.
Alabama, it must be said, looks majestic. Favored in every game this season, Georgia will not be favored against Alabama. (Unless Tua Tagovailoa’s iffy knee gives way, in which case we’d all need to reassess.) Said linebacker Monty Rice: “Next week the doubters will be back.”
Maybe not next week. But some doubt is coming soon. For that, we can only assume the sensitive Bulldogs will be grateful.