October 2, 2017 at 7:00 AM
KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — It looks like it’s time to relearn Georgia, after paying it little mind across recent autumns.
Georgia is a football program from Athens, Ga., the best college town in the Southeastern Conference. It wins more than it loses, sometimes even thrice as much in a given year. It plays its home games between two long rows of privet Ligustrum, or, for easier pronunciation, “hedges,” and not “shrubs.” Its mascot, Uga, is a pure English white bulldog, and wait, which Uga number are they on these days? They’re on Uga X, the tenth Uga, named “Que,” which seems more apt for a French bulldog.
Because this is one of the world’s weirdest nations (a fact which extends well beyond Georgia), Uga gets a doghouse on the field. Because this is one of the world’s weirdest nations (which extends well beyond Georgia), that doghouse is air-conditioned. Because this is one of the world’s weirdest nations (a fact which extends well beyond Georgia), Uga is awarded a varsity letter upon a plaque, just like a player, and while nobody knows how much this matters to Uga, everybody knows that if you set the plaque on a floor and placed a treat atop it, he would lick it.
For almost all the young 21st century, Georgia, the 1980 national champion, has played in the near suburbs of the national consciousness. It has been sort of a beast but sort of not. Before this binge of 5-0 and a No. 5 ranking here in 2017, it last made some big commotion in September 2015, getting to 4-0, but then invited Alabama to town on Oct. 3, and that was that. It has not invited Alabama this year, which is wiser. Georgia has a strong self-image, though. It whacked a head coach after 2015, after his last two seasons went 10-3 and 10-3, because it just did not think it was quite as chic as it wanted to be.
It’s getting mighty chic now.
“We’re coming,” senior linebacker Lorenzo Carter said.
In the question of whether anybody in the formerly paramount SEC will nibble anywhere near the caliber of the league’s great tormenter, Alabama, Georgia has become the best candidate. It has opened its SEC season by playing two not-bad teams — Mississippi State and Tennessee — and it has given them a right mauling by a combined 72-3, and it has acted as if it might even remain peeved about that “3” (which Mississippi State admirably got). It has a defense that makes defense a thrill to watch. It’s kinetic, magnetic, rich in experience and rich in Georgians, a reminder both that Georgia plays in the eighth-most-populous state and that Georgians do not mind playing some football.
Asked to describe this defense on Saturday in the catacombs of Neyland Stadium after the 41-0 bummer it placed upon Tennessee’s weary masses, Georgia’s defenders tried.
“Fast, physical and fun,” redshirt sophomore defensive back J.R. Reed said.
“Stingy. Stingy. We’re a stingy defense,” Carter said.
“We believe. That’s the difference this year,” sophomore defensive back Tyrique McGhee said.
Reed: “We trust our coaches. We know what they’re doing. We believe in them. They trust in us.”
Carter: “I think just everybody’s bought in, everybody’s playing fast, fast and hard, and we’re just more physical overall.”
McGhee: “Everybody believes.”
Comb through the biographies of the defenders and the words “senior” and “junior” pop up a lot. The second-year head coach, Kirby Smart, clearly inherited them from the former, Mark Richt. That said, they do seem to defend in an upgraded way. They have played a non-cushy schedule (Notre Dame, Mississippi State, Tennessee), and they’re No. 4 in defensive yards per play (3.8), No. 3 in total defense (244.0) and No. 2 in scoring defense (9.2, behind only Alabama’s 8.6). People are saying they look like Alabama with their speed and speed-reading, and that’s plausible because Smart, 41, spent eight seasons as the defensive coordinator of Sabanama before moving back to Athens where he studied finance and played defensive back in 1995-98, when the whole world was slower.
What this defense imposed upon Tennessee — seven first downs, 62 rushing yards — was downright totalitarian. Had there come a late Tennessee score to avert the shutout, it would have counted as injustice. It took some commendable nerve for Tennessee linebacker Colton Jumper to say of Georgia in general, “They’re not as good as we made them out to be.” For five previous seasons, Georgia and Tennessee had played tight, fur-flying games, most notably the lunacy of 2016 in Athens, with its three touchdowns in the last three minutes and two touchdowns in the last 10 seconds. Now, in a whoosh, one of these two scrappers scrapping beneath the Alabama castle has leaped out ahead of the other, especially with that wise, polished defense.
“Yeah, that’s not my defense,” Smart said. “Coach [Mel] Tucker does a tremendous job with that defense. They play hard for Coach Tucker. You know, during halftime, I didn’t even need to go over there and see the defensive players. They had it under control.”
When he said “Tucker,” he meant the Mel Tucker who has coached at Michigan State (with Saban), Miami (Ohio), LSU (with Saban), Ohio State, the Cleveland Browns, the Jacksonville Jaguars, the Chicago Bears and Alabama (with Saban), where he coached defensive backs until he got in the eastbound car with Smart. “Obviously there is going to be some carryover from what we’ve done at Alabama,” Tucker told reporters in 2016 before they got started, “but we’re going to do some new things, as well.”
Obviously, the Alabama part sounded good.
By Saturday, another moment sounded like Alabama. Smart voluntarily pinpointed the thing he finds toughest to pull off in college football, and it’s sounded like many a Saban soliloquy. It’s the ongoing battle to corral young minds prone to straying into complacency while flooded with flattery. “We’re starting to see, kind of, how good we can be, but they can’t start believing the hype,” Smart said. “They’ve got to stay focused and stay working. That’s the challenge our coaching staff, our organization has: to keep this team focused. That’s the hardest thing to do in college football.”
Everyone said Georgia’s trip to Tennessee would reveal how seriously everyone should take Georgia. So the answer is: quite seriously, even as it’s funny that later in the evening, Alabama reminded everyone it can rout better than anyone else can rout, with its 66-3 win over a previously rebellious Ole Miss reminding everyone of the order of the universe north of the Gulf of Mexico.
Still, let’s take a look at Georgia, up ahead: at Vanderbilt (which won at Athens last year and might warrant comeuppance), Missouri, versus No. 21 Florida in Jacksonville, South Carolina, at No. 12 Auburn, Kentucky and at Georgia Tech. All of this bears watching now as the season turns and the air conditioning might be less necessary in the on-field doghouse.
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