UGA reassessed: What’s the ceiling for these Bulldogs?

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Georgia coach Kirby Smart speaks with the media ahead of the Kentucky game. (Video by Maghen Moore)

Georgia is No. 6 in this week’s Associated Press poll, and it’s apt to be no worse than No. 7 when the first College Football Playoff rankings are revealed Tuesday night. It can clinch the SEC East by winning at Kentucky on Saturday, which means it’s again in position to play for the SEC title, which means it has a chance to crack the playoff field, which is really all a team can ask.

Georgia is where it needs to be, more or less. And yet, even after a 19-point victory over then-No. 9 Florida, the feeling is that this team is a bit less than its immediate predecessor, which won the SEC and very nearly the whole shebang. That might sound like an indictment of these Bulldogs. It’s really an indictment of us.

Those who do the preseason-ranking thing – I’m annually among them – look at such tangible things as a returning quarterback (Georgia had Jake Fromm) and young talent (Georgia had scads) and an incoming recruiting class (by consensus the nation’s best), and we also consider the ephemeral issue of momentum. The Bulldogs had just broken upward, and many of the players who’d assisted in that effort were back. Ergo, they’d be even better this time around.

Sure enough, Georgia was No. 3 in the preseason AP poll, behind the 1-2 punch of Alabama and Clemson, just ahead of Wisconsin and Ohio State. Bama and Clemson are still 1-2 – they’ve been that for years, it seems – and Ohio State is No. 8. (Wisconsin just lost to Northwestern to fall to 4-3 and didn’t receive a single vote this week.) If Georgia has disappointed, it has done so only slightly, and its one loss was to No. 4 LSU in Baton Rouge.

Granted, it was a comprehensive loss. The Bulldogs trailed by 16 at the half and lost by 20. They weren't very good that day. They were much better in Jacksonville, though they again left points unscored. (Thirty years from now, Kirby Smart will still be having nightmares over those six futile plays on the goal line.) They trailed, albeit briefly, in the second half against a Florida team that, by its own admission, isn't of vintage Gator standards.

Afterward, these fallible fingers typed a few hundred words suggesting that this year's Georgia isn't last year's Georgia, and then, as often happens, the brain connected to those fingers had a bit of a rethink: Should that, in the grand scheme, really be a surprise? If this year's Georgia is merely one of the nation's best half-dozen teams, could that in any way be construed a disappointment?

This was Smart afterward: “I was sitting in a meeting (Friday) night, and I’m sitting there thinking Mel (Tucker, defensive coordinator) is going to call out three guys as what we call signal-callers. We go over notes of the game and make them present them to the team. Jordan Davis stands up and goes over short-yardage goal line. Brenton Cox stands up and goes over the pass-rush plan. Tyson Campbell stands up and goes over the tricks and gimmicks. And I’m about to have a heart attack back there with these three guys. You’re used to your older guys being able to do those, and those (were) three true freshmen.”

Then: “Youth is a good thing because they listen and they learn, but they also grow up and get better. It’s frustrating because there are plays out there that we’ve made in the past that we didn’t make this game. Youth should never be an excuse.”

No excuse, perhaps. But maybe an explanation. The 2017 Bulldogs had four seniors – Sony Michel, Nick Chubb, Lorenzo Carter and Davin Bellamy – who’d chosen to stay in Athens rather than declare early for the NFL draft. All four are on NFL rosters today. The 2017 Bulldogs had Roquan Smith, a junior who became the nation’s best defender. Those were cornerstone types, meaning both seasoned and hugely gifted.

Of the 26 offensive and defensive players listed by Georgia as potential starters against Florida, seven were seniors. Eleven were freshmen or sophomores. Said Smart: “We’ve got a lot of young guys on this team,” which is essentially the gap team between Mark Richt’s final holdovers and the first full wave of his successor’s recruits. That D’Andre Swift and Elijah Holyfield aren’t as electric as Michel/Chubb doesn’t render the current pairing substandard; it’s simply another reminder that the previous duo was extraordinary.

Last year’s Bulldogs had a blissful mix of young and old. This team skews younger, which was inevitable given the change from Richt to Smart. This team also suffered from the lack of an early test – the 2017 bunch had September in South Bend – that wound up showing against the Fighting Tigers in Death Valley. That was the first team the 2018 Bulldogs ran across an opponent that could approximate its talent, and it might be the last such opponent they’ll see until Dec. 1 in Mercedes-Benz Stadium.

The suspicion now is that Georgia is good enough to play for the SEC championship, but not quite good enough – assuming Alabama represents the West – to win it. A second loss would almost certainly leave the Bulldogs out of the playoff, but it’d surely land them a New Year’s Six bowl. If that’s indeed their destination, should it be considered an underachievement?

Probably not. Last year’s Georgia was an exceptional group. Next year’s Georgia should likewise be exceptional. If these Bulldogs wind up being only the nation’s fifth-best team, that’ll do.