At 9-0, Georgia Is So Close, and So Far, From Its Goal


Referring to several high school players making their official visits, he added, “The only thing significant right now is that I get back over there, talk with these recruits, and get ready for Auburn.”

For context, Smart — like South Carolina’s coach, Will Muschamp — is a former assistant to Alabama Coach Nick Saban. And for all of Saban’s defensive innovations, the great coach’s true hallmark is his extreme-Zen outlook, in which celebrating only gets in the way of further accomplishment. At his current rate of self-congratulation, Saban, 66, is on track to bask in the glory of the five national titles he has won (so far) around a decade after he retires.

And Smart is not wrong. Challenges remain for Georgia, not least Saturday’s trip to No. 10 Auburn (7-2). As always, Georgia finishes against Georgia Tech, whose option offense is overlooked at one’s peril. Then there is the Southeastern Conference title game, which will be either a rematch against Auburn or a heavyweight fight against — who else? — Alabama. The Crimson Tide are also 9-0 and are currently first in the A.P. poll, first in the coaches’ poll and (for now) second in the selection committee’s rankings.

“We really just stayed humble,” the Georgia sophomore J.R. Reed said of his team’s mind-set. “And we know that, hey, the playoffs really start right now, and we lose one, we’re out. But we don’t really focus on that.”

Photo

Georgia Coach Kirby Smart celebrating with cornerback Deandre Baker after a defensive stop in the second half of the Bulldogs’ 24-10 win over South Carolina on Saturday.

Credit
Joshua L. Jones/Athens Banner-Herald, via Associated Press

“I guarantee you,” added Reed, referring to the fact that Georgia was at that moment minutes away from clinching its first appearance in the SEC title game since 2012, “half the guys don’t even know that yet.”

The Bulldogs were helped Saturday not only by their effort between the hedges at Sanford Stadium, but also by Kentucky’s loss, which ensured Georgia’s spot in the SEC title game on Dec. 2. Alabama and Auburn won, making potential future Bulldogs wins against them more impressive in the committee’s eyes, and Notre Dame’s victory kept the luster on Georgia’s 20-19 victory over the Fighting Irish in September.

Finally, Ohio State and Penn State lost, damaging the Big Ten’s playoff hopes and holding out the possibility that — Reed’s analysis aside — Georgia might be able to absorb a loss and still make the four-team playoff.

That mouthful of scenarios, with far-flung games involving teams Georgia will not play having profound consequences on its season, illustrates the dizzying reality of college football today. Though there are roughly the same number of good football programs in 2017 as in 1980, these days it is much harder, or at least more complicated, to be crowned national champion when the season is done.

Here is how the Bulldogs captured the 1980 title. They won all their regular-season games. Then they played in the Sugar Bowl, because they were invited, and there they beat Notre Dame, which also was there because it was invited. The Irish were ranked No. 7 in the final A.P. poll, making them the only Georgia opponent that finished ranked. Georgia also was the country’s only undefeated team, and so when the Bulldogs won their bowl, they were voted No. 1. Ta-da! National champions.

Today, 12-0 against arbitrarily weak opposition will not cut it. Teams often line up strong intersectional competition to improve their playoff résumés. They play in a conference title game. Their win-loss record is considered in the context of their schedule strength. And then they must win two more games against teams who were selected not to please bowl officials, but because they were dispassionately judged to be the best of the best.

For whatever reason, in the postseason era — going back to the first Bowl Championship Series title game after the 1998 season — Georgia, the flagship team of one of the top states for recruiting, has been consistently great but never the best. Under Mark Richt from 2001 to 2015, for instance, Georgia finished ranked 11 times, and in the top 10 five times. But it never made the national postseason during a span in which SEC teams won nine titles.

So perhaps Smart’s myopic mind-set is, well, smart. Georgia has not yet done the things for which they hang your picture and speak of you a half-century hence.

Smart’s players showed all evidence after the game of buying into his vision, repeating his koans like “keep chopping” and “humility’s a week away,” and emphasizing that they were concerned exclusively with winning the next game.

“Just turn off ESPN,” Reed said, “you’ll be fine.”

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