ATHENS — Who knew the nation’s No. 1 team, which also is the two-time defending national champion, could look like exactly that from start to finish?

Georgia finally decided not to look vulnerable on a brisk Saturday evening at a packed and deafening Sanford Stadium. The No. 1 Bulldogs whipped No. 20 Kentucky from the first snap to the last in a 51-13 victory.

The Bulldogs heard their fans’ pleas. “Enough screwing around. Enough with needing the comebacks. What can this team be at its best?” The answer, as Larry David would say: Pretty, pretty good.

“This was a good indication of what we can do,” cornerback Kamari Lassiter said.

Georgia coach Kirby Smart and his players raved about Kentucky’s physicality earlier in the week. It was immediately clear that Georgia wouldn’t be amused by Kentucky’s toughness. They punched the Wildcats in the mouth repeatedly, and Kentucky couldn’t keep pace. That’s what separates Georgia from nearly every other team in the country. “We can take a punch, and we can give a punch,” Smart said three times during his postgame press conference.

This was a classic “my guy is better than your guy” game. Remember those? Georgia played them plenty over the past two years, but this season it had been a little more “survive and advance.”

That’s not the expectation around here. Amazon is held to a higher standard than a start-up. For the nation’s premier teams, style points matter – even when you’ve won 33 consecutive regular-season games.

So while some might scoff at Georgia “needing” a performance like this, I’d disagree. They fell short of their expectations when they trailed South Carolina 14-3 and Auburn 10-0. They fell short of their expectations when they dawdled through afternoon games against lesser foes.

That’s why we’ll make a big deal out of Saturday. Kentucky is a quality opponent, previously unbeaten, even though no one confused them for a legitimate contender. They defeated a bunch of non-descript teams and Florida (which might also qualify as a non-descript team). But they still had scored over 28 points in each game and won all five by double digits.

Kentucky was Georgia’s best opponent thus far, which made this a judgment-worthy affair. Let’s check the results, starting with perhaps Georgia’s best strength: Its passing game (?????). This is an explosive offense despite losing quarterback Stetson Bennett IV and offensive coordinator Todd Monken.

I thought my colleague Chip Towers nailed it when he wrote this week that quarterback Carson Beck wouldn’t be what holds Georgia back from its goals. Beck showed Saturday he’s capable of being a reason they reach them. He completed his first 13 passes and threw for a career-high 389 yards. He spread the ball masterfully – eight Bulldogs had catches from Beck.

It’s not an apples-to-apples comparison, but for context, through six games last season, Bennett was 138-for-199 passing (69%) for 1,745 yards, five touchdowns and one interception. That includes a brilliant performance in the opener against Oregon, which was better than any opponent the 2023 Bulldogs have faced.

Beck in six games this season: 144-for-196 (73%) for 1,886 yards with 11 touchdowns and three interceptions. Remember, Beck was relegated to mop-up duty the past couple of years. He’s figuring out who he is as a starting quarterback. We don’t have the whole picture yet. A performance like this one makes you wonder how good Beck could look by December.

Overall, the Bulldogs gained 608 yards against a defense that was giving up less than half that (297.2 average). Kentucky’s pass defense had surrendered only 221.4 yards per game; Georgia threw for 435. The Wildcats’ run defense had limited opponents to 75.8 rushing yards per game; Georgia gained 173.

“The offense showed flashes (of what it can be),” tight end Brock Bowers said. “We were executing pretty well, hitting our shots. Ran the ball pretty well. I was proud of the guys tonight.”

On defense, Georgia responded emphatically to the pregame chatter. If you’ve seen the viral videos of Blooper, the Braves’ goofy mascot, trouncing children on the football field, that’s how Wildcats running back Ray Davis looked against Florida last week (280 yards on 26 carries with four total touchdowns). Therefore, much was made of Kentucky’s rushing attack – 171 yards per game – entering the night.

The Braves’ offense wasn’t the only high-powered unit shut down in this state Saturday. Davis against Georgia: 15 carries for 59 yards. The Wildcats’ hopes of running wild evaporated when they trailed by three touchdowns in 20 minutes of game time (“The quick start played big time to our advantage,” Smart said). Kentucky managed only 55 yards on the ground against a defense that allowed 134 rushing yards per contest.

“This was one of our best (games we can play),” linebacker Jamon Dumas-Johnson said. “Look at the score. Look at the team. Look how many yards they had. I feel like this was our best game of the year, but it’s not going to be the only best game of the year.”

Georgia hadn’t asserted itself as the previous two champions had by this time. That wasn’t necessarily concerning, though it led many to believe Georgia is ripe for an upset. The Bulldogs might still be, at least more than the past two seasons, but they also should remain the favorites until proved otherwise. However ugly or underwhelming some of the performances were, they’ve earned the benefit of the doubt.

No, this isn’t the 2021 team. This isn’t the 2022 team. But it doesn’t have to be. Scan the college football landscape. Do you see any 2021 or ‘22 Bulldogs out there? The sport’s wide-open field is used as an argument for teams like Florida State, Michigan and now Oklahoma to justify their highest hopes. The same reality helps Georgia, too.

This team doesn’t require the talent it previously had to threepeat. There’s a real chance we don’t see Georgia teams that talented again, anyway. But this group still has the credentials of a champion. It could still be the best and most talented team in the country. This isn’t its peak either.

Receiver Ladd McConkey is nowhere near full health (he had only one catch Saturday). Running back Kendall Milton will get healthier. Beck, for all the expectations on his shoulders, is a first-time starter working with a new offensive coordinator. These receivers, such as Rara Thomas, who had a spectacular touchdown catch, are racking up only more reps in this offense. The defense will progress. Bowers remains the crème de la crème for weaponry.

Speaking of Bowers, who had seven catches for 132 yards and a touchdown: On the stadium jumbotron, one fan’s phone read, “Bowers 4 Heisman.” Unfortunately, a tight end winning the Heisman Trophy seems to blow past the realm of realistic possibilities. But if Bowers remains healthy and isn’t in New York City as a finalist, it’ll be hard to respect the award for what it’s supposed to represent.

“Not really,” Bowers said when I asked if Heisman candidacy ever enters his mind. “I know if there is a chance, I’ll just have to stay doing what I do week-to-week and not change anything I’m doing.”

Bowers might not care about the Heisman, but he does care about potentially going 3-for-3 in winning national titles during his career. Halfway through this season, everything Georgia wants is in play. They’ve remained No. 1, even if the coach doesn’t care.

“I want to be the No. 1 team at the end of the year,” Smart said. “The goal to get there is to get better. I (couldn’t) care less what anybody ranks us (right now).”

The oft-criticized Bulldogs schedule has a couple of more challenging tasks awaiting. Ole Miss, which is competing to win the SEC West, comes to Athens a month from now. Everyone circled the trip to Tennessee before the season, and even after the Volunteers embarrassed themselves in Gainesville, that won’t be a freebie.

If we take nothing else from Saturday, this is important: We haven’t seen the best form of the 2023 Bulldogs. Saturday provided a glimpse into what they can become. This team might not be the past two, but as we sit here in early October, there’s no reason to be convinced they can’t join them in immortality.