No apologies for No. 1 Georgia in win over Vanderbilt, but no medals, either

Georgia defensive back Malaki Starks (24) and linebacker Chaz Chambliss, right, tackle Vanderbilt running back Sedrick Alexander (28) in the second half of an NCAA college football game Saturday, Oct. 14, 2023, in Nashville, Tenn. (AP Photo/George Walker IV)

Credit: AP

Credit: AP

Georgia defensive back Malaki Starks (24) and linebacker Chaz Chambliss, right, tackle Vanderbilt running back Sedrick Alexander (28) in the second half of an NCAA college football game Saturday, Oct. 14, 2023, in Nashville, Tenn. (AP Photo/George Walker IV)

NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Not that anyone was asking him to do so, but Georgia coach Kirby Smart announced Saturday that he isn’t going to apologize for winning on the road in the SEC. It is a pet phrase of his after less-than-impressive wins.

The occasion was No. 1 Georgia’s 37-20 win over Vanderbilt, a game in which the Bulldogs were a successful two-point conversion from having the 32.5-point underdog Commodores reduce their deficit to one possession with 6:14 to play in the game.

While not getting on his knees to seek forgiveness, Smart did offer his acknowledgement that the Bulldogs’ performance at Vanderbilt’s FirstBank Stadium was not like their dominant effort over Kentucky the previous Saturday.

“We didn’t play bad, we just had some sloppy moments,” Smart said. “I still think this team’s growing up. Second game on the road, played a little sharper.”

Before going any further, calling this a road game for the Bulldogs was accurate at least geographically, but perhaps not in spirit. Saturday’s announced attendance was 28,500 and well over half of the crowd was dressed in red and black. Smart offered his praise for the traveling Bulldogs masses, saying “it feels like a home game” when Georgia plays in Nashville.

Either way, it was another win for Smart’s team, its 24th in a row as it continues its pursuit of a historic third consecutive national championship. It was not the complete game that the Bulldogs laid on the Wildcats a week ago, but it did have its highlights. Georgia outgained Vanderbilt 552-219, which was the most yards that the Commodores have allowed and the fewest they’ve gained this season. Given that Vanderbilt has some experience with blowout defeats, that’s saying something.

Further, the Bulldogs did so without the peerless Brock Bowers, who left the field with a gimpy ankle midway through the second quarter, not to return. Right tackle Xavier Truss followed four plays later with a similar injury. That left offensive coordinator Mike Bobo to adjust to an offense that suddenly was without arguably the best player in the country and with an inexperienced freshman at right tackle, Monroe Freeling.

(Smart said of Bowers that X-rays were negative and that “I think he’ll be fine.”)

Even considering the obstacles, the game had the feeling of most of the Bulldogs’ other efforts this season, other than their game with Kentucky – they won handily, but didn’t look like a team racing toward a national title, which isn’t the gravest of insults, but certainly isn’t a compliment.

“I feel like we kind of played a little sloppy, got some things we can work on,” linebacker Smael Mondon Jr. said.

Speaking of things to work on, we present FirstBank Stadium. In the midst of a massive renovation, the spaces beyond both end zones are literal construction sites. The video board at one end was held up by two crane trucks. Smart gave his postgame news conference in a construction trailer, sharing the space with hard hats and blueprints.

“It’s definitely unique, but they’re all unique in the SEC,” Smart said graciously.

Among the flaws in the Bulldogs’ output Saturday – three fumbles (one resulting in a turnover), an interception that was returned to Georgia’s 1-yard line and cashed in for a touchdown and a 49-yard touchdown reception on Vanderbilt’s opening drive, which was part of the Commodores’ largely effective passing attack. The defense allowed Vanderbilt to get into the end zone on both of its red-zone possessions while the Bulldogs offense, which got into the red zone eight times, settled for field goals three times.

Kicking field goals after attaining the red zone, Smart said, “is a win for the defense.”

Trying to keep a play alive, quarterback Carson Beck took a sack that almost pushed the Bulldogs out of field-goal range. Smart said he was frustrated by some of Beck’s decisions and wants him to be smarter with the ball, although he praised his composure and thought he made some good throws.

The Bulldogs sought to build on their play against then-No. 20 Kentucky in which they outgained the Wildcats 608-183 in a 51-13 romp in easily their best game of the season.

“That was the expectation,” Smart said.

He added that practices this past week were crisp and really good. But, ultimately, that objective wasn’t met.

Smith pointed out the turnovers and missed plays. He said of defensive back Tykee Smith, who had an impressive flurry of plays late in the second quarter, that he did a good job, but “he had some plays that he didn’t do the right thing on either, though, and so he’s got to play better for us to be where we want to go.”

And yet, the Bulldogs did it without Bowers – a player that the offense depends on heavily – and with a little-used right tackle. Beck’s lone interception was tipped by Vanderbilt defensive end Nate Clifton after he had driven Freeling into the pocket. Had Truss been in – or for that matter, regular starter Amarius Mims, still recovering from an ankle injury – Beck likely would have gotten the ball off cleanly.

The offense showed the consistency to hold onto the ball for a 19-play drive to start the second half, but it resulted only in a field goal. And then Vanderbilt answered with a 13-play, 75-yard possession, one that reached the end zone.

It was another hard-to-read game, particularly given the high bar that Georgia normally is measured against. The Bulldogs keep winning, but the schedule hasn’t been competitive. They clearly can play better, but they’ve been hit with a series of injuries. When Smart was asked if he likes where the team is at this point, his response was that, “Yeah, I’m really proud of the leadership of this team,” which sounded a little bit like “she has a great personality.”

The Bulldogs enter a much-needed open week before heading to Jacksonville for the Florida game. Then Missouri, Ole Miss, Tennessee and Georgia Tech. The answers about this team will arrive in due time.

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