In Year 2, has Kirby Smart built a better Georgia?

Georgia coach Kirby Smart and the team take the field to play Mississippi State during an NCAA college football game Saturday, Sept. 23, 2017, in Athens, Ga. (Curtis Compton/Atlanta Journal Constitution via AP)

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Georgia coach Kirby Smart and the team take the field to play Mississippi State during an NCAA college football game Saturday, Sept. 23, 2017, in Athens, Ga. (Curtis Compton/Atlanta Journal Constitution via AP)

Sometimes we – by which I absolutely mean “me” – try too hard. We seek to ascribe Deeper Meaning to something that might well have none. Sometimes, as a Viennese doctor averred, a cigar is just a cigar. Ergo, we need to tread softly before declaring, “This is better,” or even, “This is different.”

But enough with the disclaimer. What we saw Saturday night in Athens? That was different. That was better. That was darn close to great.

Full disclosure: I was hugely disappointed in Kirby Smart’s first year. I concede that my expectations for a first-time head coach who was succeeding at worst the second-best coach in Georgia annals might have been irrational. Even so, nothing prepared me for the way Smart’s Bulldogs wobbled.

In the second half against North Carolina and against Tennessee until the last play, they looked as if they were on to something. At Ole Miss across the board and against Florida on offense, they looked just awful. They stiffened at the end against Missouri and Kentucky and were resolute all night versus Auburn. But they spit the bit against Vanderbilt and Georgia Tech and nearly – ye gods – against Nicholls State.

If nothing else, I wanted to see a baseline being established. I saw none. If you did, then you’re a better diagnostician than that doctor from Austria, whose last name was Freud. A team with Nick Chubb and Sony Michel and Lorenzo Carter and Jacob Eason went 8-5 against a bunny schedule. It was, you’d have to say, a worse season than the one that got Mark Richt fired. (Richt never lost to Tennessee, Vandy and Tech in the same season. In two months, Smart lost to all three at home.)

If you wondered last season why Georgia had dumped that coach to hire this one … well, you had reason. But you couldn’t, I submit, watch Smart’s team beat Mississippi State 31-3 Saturday without thinking, to borrow from “Hotel California”, that Georgia hadn’t had this spirit here since … well, a while back. It was the Bulldogs’ most lopsided victory over a ranked opponent in Athens since beating No. 24 Auburn 45-7 on Nov. 12, 2011, and this one was never close.

State coach Dan Mullen remarked afterward on Georgia’s “ridiculous amount of talent,” but there was coaching involved. The Bulldogs’ first snap – Jake Fromm handed the ball to Chubb, who shoveled it back to Fromm, who hit Terry Godwin running free – came from something Smart saw while watching tape of Mississippi State’s defense and mentioned to offensive coordinator Jim Chaney. Georgia’s defense didn’t put a foot wrong all night, not even the second-teamers who stopped the visitors on goal-to-go as time expired.

Literally from start to finish, talent met preparation, and the effect was glorious. Not to belabor the Alabama stuff even more, but this is the kind of comprehensive effort the mighty men of Saban offer up with regularity. (Sample score from Oct. 3, 2015: Bama 38, Georgia 10.) This was the baseline Smart labored/struggled to lay last season, when it was clear some holdovers hadn’t quite taken to the expectations of new management. Not to put too fine a point on it, but this was why Greg McGarity hired Smart.

In his postgame briefing, Smart mentioned that he’d gone around the locker room trying to say something nice about every key contributor. Someone asked if he’d taken that grace note from some other coach. His response: “You’re asking me if Nick does it?” I’ll admit it: For the first time ever, I laughed out loud at something Smart said.

And that, I’ll offer, is likewise different. Last season, Smart was as tight as a tick. Even his defenders inside the program wouldn’t dispute the point, saying only, “He has a lot on his plate.” Which was true: He was trying to graft the Alabama mindset onto a program that had been, for better or worse, less pragmatic. You’ll never hear me say that Richt’s approach to football is, in the grand scheme, a terrible thing; what I will say is that you’re not apt to beat Saban if you don’t take football as seriously as Saban.

I wouldn’t go so far as to say Georgia in Year 2 under Saban’s former No. 2 has risen to the point where it can reasonably expect to topple the Tide. There’s much football to be played, as Smart noted Saturday: “This was a great thing, but we’re still going to have dropped balls and missed tackles, and we’re still a team that has to go on the road (after a big victory) – just like Mississippi State.”

This being Georgia, it would be no great shock if it were to lose in Knoxville or yet again in Jacksonville. But Saturday’s performance dropped the first real hint that Georgia is no longer the Georgia we’ve come to know. Kirby Smart might just have built a better Georgia.