Again No. 1, Georgia enters soft part of its schedule

Georgia entered the season ranked No. 3 in the Associated Press poll, the Bulldogs drawing three of a possible 63 first-place votes. Two weeks later, they’re No. 1 – with 53 first-place votes. After beating Oregon, they rose above Ohio State. After beating Samford, they jumped Alabama. Neither Ohio State nor Bama has lost; Georgia is No. 1 because it looked better in its wins.

The Bulldogs are about to enter the portion of their schedule over which it will be difficult to impress the electorate. They’re No. 1. Of their next six games, five will come against opponents already carrying losses. The exception is Auburn, which struggled to hold off San Jose State. Playing in Gainesville, Florida was overwhelmed in the second half by Kentucky, which Georgia won’t see until Nov. 19.

Preseason belief, at least in this sector, held that the Bulldogs have three true tests before the SEC Championship game. They aced the first, beating Oregon by 46 points. The second figured, and still figures, to be Tennessee on Nov. 5. The third will come against Kentucky in Lexington.

Mississippi State has started 2-0, having beaten Memphis and Arizona. The maroon Bulldogs were picked to finish sixth in the seven-team SEC West, ahead of only Auburn. ESPN’s Football Power Index sees the game in Starkville on Nov. 12 as the one Georgia’s most apt to lose, the Athens-based Bulldogs being given only – only, we emphasize – a 73.8% chance of prevailing.

Georgia will be favored in its next 10 games. That doesn’t mean it can’t lose. Recent history, however, suggests that it takes a mighty good team playing mightily to beat the Bulldogs.

Of their 10 losses over the past five seasons, four came against Alabama. Two were against LSU. One was against a Top 10 Auburn at Auburn, one in Jacksonville against the best Florida team of the past decade, one in a Sugar Bowl that meant way more to Texas.

The exception – an exceptional exception – was against a 2-3 South Carolina team between the hedges on Oct. 12, 2019. Ranked No. 3, Georgia was favored by 24.5 points. The Gamecocks, then coached by Will Muschamp, had lost to Alabama by 24 points and to Missouri by 20. Quarterback Jake Bentley was hurt in an opening loss to North Carolina. Ryan Hilinski would be injured in the third quarter in Athens.

Jake Fromm hadn’t thrown an interception that season; he threw three – all to Israel Mukuamu, who returned the first for a touchdown – against South Carolina. Rodrigo Blankenship, who hadn’t missed a field goal, missed twice that day. From the start of the second half through the first overtime, the Gamecocks went scoreless on seven possessions. They won 20-17. The Bulldogs failed in both OTs, first on a tipped Fromm INT, then on a game-ending Blankenship miss from 42 yards.

Georgia plays in Columbia, S.C., on Saturday. It’s a noon start, as was the case three years ago. The Bulldogs are favored by 24 points, which sounds familiar. There aren’t many easy SEC road games, though South Carolina doesn’t enter on a high. It lost 44-30 at Arkansas after trailing by 12 at halftime and by 19 with seven minutes remaining. Georgia probably won’t win 49-3. It almost certainly will win.

Among the reasons Kirby Smart is a championship coach is that he ticks the first box on every coaching checklist: He has his teams ready to play. The South Carolina game of 2019 is the exception that proves the rule. Since Georgia got good in 2017, it’s the only horrid loss.

Georgia’s next five games are against South Carolina, Kent State, Missouri, Auburn and Vanderbilt. Given that Georgia’s No. 1 and none of those is ranked, any loss would qualify as horrid.

As we saw again Saturday, strange things happen in college football. Still, it’s remarkable how, in the grand scheme, form holds. This week’s AP Top 5 includes Georgia, Alabama, Ohio State and Clemson, all champions in the playoff era. It would be a surprise if this playoff doesn’t include three of those four. It would be a shock if Georgia isn’t among them.