No. 3 Georgia looks for faster start, finish in latest Alabama rematch

With their first posession in overtime, Alabama quarterback Tua Tagovailoa completes a 41-yard touchdown pass to freshman Devonta Smith for a touchdown -- and the win. (Video by Ben Brasch / AJC)

ATHENS – There’s a tiny little nugget hidden in the middle of one of Kirby Smart’s answers to questions after Saturday night’s win over Tennessee that should give Georgia fans some hope heading into this weekend’s trip to Tuscaloosa to visit No. 2 Alabama.

Asked about the No. 3-ranked Bulldogs' ability to overcome adversity, Smart first mentions things like conditioning and pride. Then he drills down on the heart of the matter.

“I think our team adjusts well,” Smart said following Georgia’s 44-21 win over the then-No. 14 Volunteers. “If somebody gives us trouble with something, we have answers.”

It’s a good thing, otherwise the Bulldogs could’ve been in some real trouble before they ever arrived here at Week 4 and this much anticipated match with the Crimson Tide. While they have won their first three games and won them handily, by an average margin of 23.7 points, Georgia trailed at the half against Arkansas and Tennessee.

But in both of those cases, the Bulldogs responded with dominating second halves. Georgia outscored the Hogs and the Vols 35-3 in the third quarter. This season, the Bulldogs have won the second half by the aggregate score of 62-6.

The converse of that is the first half has been a relatively tight 46-31, or 28-22 in the case of just Arkansas and Tennessee.

Georgia certainly would like to get off to a better start Saturday night in Tuscaloosa.

“It shows me what we can be if we do that the whole time,” Smart said of his team’s second-half superiority. “My focus is on why we are not doing that from the start. Why are we not executing better from the start and dominating the opponent instead of keeping people in the game? We’ve got to do a better job of dominating from start to finish. That’s the focus, how we can do that better.”

Of course, Alabama will have something to say about that. Usually, if there’s any dominating to be done, it has been done by the Crimson Tide.

But that wasn’t the case last week at Ole Miss. The Rebels played Bama to a 21-21 tie at halftime and remained tied or within one score of the Tide until the final 90 seconds of the game, when an Ole Miss onside kick failed. The final margin of 63-48 wasn’t secured until Najee Harris went 39 yards for his fifth touchdown of the night.

Those struggles, along with the Rebels' 647 yards of offense and 31 first downs, are reasons Georgia has much optimism heading to Tuscaloosa for the first time since 2007. Alabama is the higher ranked team and is favored, but it has looked anything but invincible.

The Tide defense is giving up 473 yards and 30.3 points per game. And while their 51 points per game on offense is intimidating, they haven’t encountered a defense remotely like the one Georgia is bringing to town.

The Bulldogs also will arrive with the confidence of knowing they can compete. While Georgia has lost the past five meetings against Alabama, the past two with Smart as coach certainly could have gone either way. In fact, those have been more about finishes than starts.

The Bulldogs were ahead 21-7 late in the second quarter and 28-14 late in the third of the 2018 SEC Championship game at Mercedes-Benz Stadium before losing 35-28 because to poor execution and special-teams mistakes. Likewise, Georgia was ahead by two scores in the fourth quarter of the College Football Playoff Championship game in the 2016 season before losing 26-23 in overtime.

As ever, finishing as important as starting in football. But if the Bulldogs do in fact fall behind at any point, they have confidence in their ability to overcome. They’ve done it twice this year already.

“It shows we’ve got fight,” junior tackle Jamaree Salyer said. “That’s a really big credit to leadership on our team, to the coaching staff putting us in a good situation and not panicking when things get tough. … That’s something we take a lot of pride in around here. We get tough when it gets hot outside, when it rains, when it gets humid. Whatever the adversity may be, we pride ourselves on being a team that overcomes that.”

Again, not ever getting behind remains the preference.

“I’m proud of the way they’ve responded,” Smart said of the Bulldogs. “They’ve responded by coming out and playing physical. But we certainly didn’t execute in either one of those games the way that we’re capable of.”

SATURDAY’S GAME

No. 3 Georgia at No. 2 Alabama, 8 p.m., CBS, AM 750 WSB, 95.5 FM WSB, 1380

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