Columbia, S.C.—On Monday I was in Athens, Ga., doing some prep work for Saturday’s Georgia-South Carolina game. I ran into a veteran employee of the Georgia athletic department who has seen everything.
He asked what I thought about Saturday’s game at Williams-Brice Stadium. I told him that, based on history, Georgia could struggle. The Bulldogs had lost three of their last four games in Columbia and over the years had brought SEC championship teams here and barely gotten out alive.
My friend smile and said: “That’s BS.”
“Really?” I asked.
“Yep. Before Smart.”
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The No. 3 Bulldogs made a statement here on Saturday before 83,140 fans who braved 90-degree temperatures hoping their South Carolina Gamecocks were ready to challenge Georgia for the SEC East championship. They were not and the Bulldogs proved it emphatically, winning 41-17.
That statement? That last season, when Georgia came within one play of winning a national championship, was not an aberration. The Bulldogs are going to be in the hunt for the SEC title and a playoff berth again and for the foreseeable future. Get used to it.
“This was absolutely a statement game for us,” said quarterback Jake Fromm. “We are who we say we are. A lot of people talk about what we lost (from last season’s team.) But we are ready for this season. We’re not going anywhere.”
“There is no doubt we that we sent a message today,” said running back De’Andre Swift,” who had 64 of Georgia’s 272 yards rushing. “We are a tough, physical football team that can play with anybody in the country.”
Here is how Georgia made its statement:
**--After quickly falling behind 14-0, South Carolina clawed its way back into the game and trailed 14-10 as the final seconds of the first half wound down. It felt like the Gamecocks had settled in and that the game would go for four quarters.
**--But on the last play of the first half Georgia’s Ricardo Blankenship kicked a 44-yard field goal to make it 17-10.
**--Georgia had won the opening toss and deferred. The Bulldogs got the second half kickoff and marched it 75 yards for a touchdown to make it 24-10.
**--South Carolina quarterback Jake Bentley threw three straight incompletions. Georgia got the ball back and again marched 75 yards again for a touchdown to make it 31-10 with 9:12 left in the third quarter.
“That was the back breaker,” said Smart. “The fact that their defense had to go right back onto the field was big. We wore them down.”
At that point South Carolina’s fans didn’t head to the exits. They sprinted to the exits.
South Carolina has a good team. But the Gamecocks aren’t Georgia good. Not yet and that was painfully clear to those who wear the Garnet and Black at the close of business on Saturday.
The point is that in year’s past, Georgia would have been vulnerable on a day like this. But not now. Not with Kirby Smart as its head coach.
Georgia fans will tell you that they truly liked Mark Richt, who served as the Bulldogs head coach for 15 seasons (2001-2014). He averaged 9.7 wins per year and won two SEC championships. But they will also tell you that they felt something was missing, especially when it came to big games. They will tell you that the Georgia program was capable of more. It was capable of being Alabama good.
That ingredient—call it an edge, an attitude, an unshakable confidence to handle the big moment—is now in Georgia’s DNA. And it is there because of Smart.
“Coach Smart gives us a lot of confidence in big games like this,” said running back Elijah Holyfield. “We believe we are going to win.”