KNOXVILLE, Tenn. – Is this when we jump?
Win a big game at Notre Dame. Flatten its first two SEC opponents. Spend four quarters of bliss in a stadium that in recent history has seemed more like an oversized petri dish containing flesh-eating bacteria, goal posts and a football team from Athens.
Is this really happening at Georgia? Because it sure seems real.
“It definitely feels different,” senior running back Sony Michel said. “It’s different because of the culture change.”
“Last year, it wasn’t what guys expected. It wasn’t what guys were used to. A lot of decisions coach (Kirby) Smart was making — as a player, if something is hard, your natural instinct is to be defiant and not want to do it. But once you buy in and it works, it’s fun.”
Something is definitely going on. As the calendar turns to October in Smart’s second season, the Bulldogs are playing the way some envisioned, or hoped, when he was pulled in after Mark Richt was pushed out.
One week after dumping Mississippi State 31-3 with surprising ease, Georgia picked over the remains of Tennessee 41-0 on Saturday at Neyland Stadium.’
That’s a 5-0 start. That’s two SEC wins by a combined score of 72-3. That’s a shutout over Tennessee for the first time since 1981 (44-0, with Herschel Walker in a starring role) and the first time the Volunteers have been blanked at home since 1994. That will be etched on Butch Jones’ coaching gravestone, which is being manufactured at this moment.
The Bulldogs opened the week ranked No. 7. They will climb higher. Thin air. Grab hold of something.
Many are thinking: Wait for the Florida game. Understandable. But Georgia should win its next two games over Vanderbilt (road) and Missouri (home). That would bring this team to 7-0 going to Jacksonville. We’ll refrain from revisiting ugly history for now.
Smart’s biggest challenge with this team may be keeping it grounded. The Dogs just beat an SEC team on the road by 41 points. They did it despite starting slow on offense (no first downs on five of the first six possessions). They did it without a dominating performance from quarterback Jake Fromm. (Smart: “He did some good things, but he made some poor decisions. We evaluate quarterbacks on decisions.”)
Fromm made two excellent throws on Georgia’s first touchdown drive. Otherwise, he was ordinary passing: 7-for-15, 84 yards, one TD, one interception, two sacks. But that’s all this team may need this season, given the defense and the running game, which totaled 294 yards, including 109 from Nick Chubb. Fromm managed the offense well. He actually probably was more impressive with his legs than his arm, with a few scrambles and running for two scores.
Smart knows what’s coming next. This is Georgia. This is the perpetual tease of a program that underachieved too often in Richt’s later seasons. Hype from fans and media can be dizzying when a team starts a season like this.
“They can’t start believing the hype,” Smart said of his players. “They have to keep working and stay focused. That’s the biggest challenge our coaching staff has now.”
But he conceded, “The culture in practice is what creates games like today. Right now, kids are buying into it because they’re seeing the results.”
Let’s be clear. Georgia beat a bad football. Tennessee quarterback Quinten Dormady threw an interception on the first play of the game. The first play.
“In this game it seemed liked that happened often,” Chubb said. “It seemed like we were on the field more than the sideline the entire game.”
By halftime, Tennessee had three turnovers and only 64 yards in offense. Peyton Manning, a reminder of better times at Neyland, was in attendance. It’s believed he spontaneously combusted.
Vols coach Butch Jones began the week by complaining about negative media coverage. If there’s any way to paint a sinkhole in a positive light, we’re all ears, coach.
But the fact that Tennessee is a mess shouldn’t detract from Georgia’s performance. The Dogs have played bad games against mediocre Tennessee teams before and lost. They fell on a Hail Mary in Athens last season. They lost with all forms of ugliness in Knoxville in 2007, 2009 and 2015. They’ve had a string of horrible injuries occur in Knoxville, including Keith Marshall in 2013 and Chubb two seasons ago.
This game was big for Chubb. He lasted one play in his last visit here and reminded his teammates in a meeting Friday how important this game was to him. It showed in his running. He didn’t have a run for negative yardage, and in his past three games, he has carried 47 times for 321 yards, an average of 6.8 per carry.
“I know last time when I was carted off the field here, I thought I’m never coming back here, just for a lot of reasons,” he said. “To come back here and walk off on my own is a blessing.”
This season has been a dream so far. As contrast, Georgia went 4-4 in the SEC in Smart’s first season, winning games by 1, 14, 3 and 6, and losing to Ole Miss 45-14 and Florida 24-10.
New year. New era?
“It can be a positive or it can be a negative,” Michel said, referencing the hot start. “We just have to stay focused, enjoy what we’re doing and ignore the outside distractions. Everybody is going to want what we have. If you’re undefeated, everybody is going to want to take you down. We can’t get big heads about this.”
The caution is understandable. But this seems real.
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