There’s a price for being top dog, and Georgia is starting to feel it.
The No. 3-ranked Bulldogs are off to a 5-0 start for the third consecutive season and have a 15-game winning streak against SEC East opponents heading into Saturday’s game against another one in South Carolina.
Georgia also will face a foe coming off a bye for the second consecutive week. That’s a scenario the Bulldogs will be facing five times this season.
“Well, it's a reality that you deal with,” Georgia coach Kirby Smart said. “It’s kind of like kickoff times; you don't have control over it. You take it, and you go, and you do the best job you can with it.”
In some of the cases, the Bulldogs (2-0 SEC) also are coming off a bye. Like last week when they faced Tennessee in Knoxville. Both teams had two weeks to prepare and get healed up and rested. That will also be the case later this season when Georgia meets Florida in Jacksonville.
But that’s not the situation Saturday as the upset-minded Gamecocks come to town. Seeking to break a four-game losing streak to UGA, South Carolina (2-3, 1-2) had last week off while the Bulldogs were toiling with the Volunteers up on Rocky Top.
That in itself would seem to offer the Gamecocks an edge. Add in that the Bulldogs didn’t get to bed until 2 a.m. Sunday after flying back to Athens from Knoxville, then a noon kickoff for this week’s game, and there are some legitimate advantages for South Carolina.
Georgia will face a similar scenario in back-to-back weeks in November when Missouri comes to Sanford Stadium after an off week (on Nov. 9), followed by a Nov. 19 trip to Auburn in which the Tigers will be coming off a bye.
“You just move on and say, ‘Hey, maybe we didn't start good defensively last week because we were off the week before,’” Smart said with a shrug. “Sometimes there's some drop-off there. Sometimes playing a game is good for you. You get to grow and develop.”
The biggest factor is a team's health, Smart said. The Bulldogs got two players back from injury against the Vols.
“I do think the healing part is helpful, getting fresher, recovery time,” Smart said. “Those things are probably beneficial for the team that's off. But, at the end of the day, you've got to go out there and play the game, and everybody's playing the same number of games.”
Florida will also be coming in from a week off when it plays the Bulldogs in Jacksonville on Nov. 2, but so will UGA.
Even when both teams are off, it can be cause for some extra angst. The extra time gives coaches time to review what they’ve been doing, analyze what they might be able to do better and also to examine tendencies and try to move away from those.
South Carolina coach Will Muschamp claimed he would have been happy to keep playing coming off his team’s 24-7 win over Kentucky in their last outing.
“Probably our best game in all three phases,” he said. “I’d love to continue that momentum going forward. But we do have some that were banged up that we’re going to get back for this ballgame.”
This season is somewhat unusual because the schedule allowed all teams to get two bye weeks. But for them to fall before Georgia five times is a testament to its place in the SEC hierarchy at the moment.
It’s something that Alabama has had to deal with often. In 2010, the Crimson Tide played six opponents coming off byes. With Smart as defensive coordinator, the team went 10-3 that season and did not win the West as Auburn went on to win the national championship.
Likewise, Georgia struggled against Florida in the 1990s, a decade during which it often didn’t have an off week before playing, while the Gators did. But that could have had more to do with the strong teams Steve Spurrier was fielding than the Bulldogs not having a matching bye.
Nevertheless, Georgia has done better since re-establishing an off week before Florida in 2006. The Bulldogs are 6-7 in the 13 seasons since. The games have generally been more competitive overall since both teams are off the previous week.
When the SEC schedules were released earlier this year, the league said it avoids any team having to play three opponents coming off of byes while not also having the weekend off. But the league’s research also indicates that there is no statistical evidence supporting an advantage for either team.
That’s the narrative Smart has been selling his team on.
“It’s a little harder for a team coming off a bye to get going,” Georgia senior receiver Tyler Simmons said. “You can see with us last week, we were a little slow getting started. I don’t really look at it as an advantage.”
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