Three months from now, we might recall the doings of Sept. 9 and ask, “Why was that such a big deal?” Notre Dame, which was 4-8 last season, could well wind up 7-5. The trappings of the game – at South Bend, on NBC in prime time with a slew of Georgia fans in attendance – will brand this a Signal Moment in Bulldog annals. In football terms, it probably wasn’t.
In football terms, it was a nice win. In headier times, Georgia would bag two of those a month. This is not – or, more precisely, not yet – such a time. The best win of Mark Richt’s final regular season came against an Auburn team that finished 7-6, which is why that was Richt’s final season. The best wins of Year 1 under Kirby Smart? Either the Georgia Dome opener against North Carolina or the November victory in Athens over an Auburn team with a banged-up quarterback. Both Tar Heels and Tigers would finish 8-5.
The image of Georgia has come to outstrip the reality of Georgia. This program really hasn’t done much for a while. When the Richt era was in its ascendance, his teams would go anywhere and beat anybody. For Smart, winning in South Bend – even at the expense of a team that might get Brian Kelly fired – was all but mandatory if these Bulldogs are to make anything of a season that needs to have something made of it.
Winning at Notre Dame caught our attention. Losing would have had us shaking our heads and saying, “Same old Georgia.” The victory wasn’t pretty. The Bulldogs were flagged for 12 penalties. Jake Fromm, making his first collegiate start, made two turnovers. Rodrigo Blankenship, newly minted scholarship holder, missed a field goal. (He would make up for it.) The Bulldogs led for 12 ½ of the game’s 60 minutes. Their biggest lead was one point.
And yet: They won. A year ago, Georgia let three home games slip – Tennessee, Vanderbilt and Georgia Tech – that were easier to win than to lose. Its three true road victories came at Missouri, South Carolina and Kentucky, all of which finished under .500. The Bulldogs finished 8-5, and in hindsight not one of the eight W’s merited a gold star. Over the fullness of time, this Notre Dame game could get devalued. In the here and now, it was one a coach in Year 2 coming off an unimpressive Year 1 had to have.
We’ve been fooled so many times by early Georgia results – remember the South Carolina and LSU game of 2013, or the Clemson win of 2014? – that we should proceed with caution. (Doesn’t mean we will, but we should.) There was much to like about the performance in South Bend, most of it having to do with defense, The offense remains another matter. Through two games, the Bulldogs rank 97th among FBS teams in total yards.
Small sample size, yes. But the Bulldogs mustered 368 yards against small fry Appalachian State and 326 against Notre Dame. That’s 694 yards in eight quarters against non-SEC defenses. Georgia Tech got 655 in four quarters plus two overtimes against Tennessee. (And lost, but never mind.) Yes, Jacob Eason was hurt on the season’s third series and Georgia has since operated behind a freshman who’s less gifted, arm-wise, but still. You have Nick Chubb and Sony Michel and Terry Godwin. You have more tight ends that any team save the New England Patriots. You’re supposed to have upgraded the O-line. This is the best you can do?
Whispers from Athens have held that Eason, who’s listed as “week to week,” is apt to miss four to six weeks. Someone who knows a lot about athletic injuries suggests the larger window is more realistic. Fromm just proved he could do the game-manager thing on the road in a charged environment. Against better opposition, would that be enough?
That, yet again, is the issue. On this schedule, where’s the better opposition? Tennessee should have lost to Tech and was close to getting embarrassed. Florida looks no different from the past two years, which is not a compliment. Mississippi State hasn’t played anybody. (It gets LSU on Saturday.) Missouri just fired its defensive coordinator. Kentucky led Eastern Kentucky by a point with 11 minutes left. The genius schemes of Gus Malzahn enabled Auburn to amass 117 yards and no touchdowns at Clemson.
Once more, with feeling: Even if Georgia doesn’t appear anything approaching a colossus, what’s to keep it from winning the SEC East? In years past, the answer has been, “Georgia keeps itself from winning the SEC East.” Winning at Notre Dame suggests – but does not prove – that these Bulldogs could be the class of a division that could stand a touch of class.