ATLANTA — Somehow, this opaque 41-year-old head coach with the barbed-wire team looked suddenly and slightly like some warm symphony conductor. At the end of his blur of a victory tour around Mercedes-Benz Stadium on Saturday, after his blur of a two-year Georgia upswing, he ran and reveled beneath section after section of fans wearing the same red-and-black he once wore as an all-conference Georgia safety. The noise kept booming and stoking the neck hairs.
Having arrived at the last section of fans, and having let delirium gush into his serious football brain, Kirby Smart stopped and removed his perpetual white visor. Then he bowed toward the crowd and held out that cheap accessory like a formal top hat. Georgia, chronically hopeful and not-quite-there Georgia, had reversed a 40-17 loss only 21 days ago at Auburn, had beaten Auburn, 28-7, had won its first Southeastern Conference title since 2005 and had secured passage to the College Football Playoff, the sport’s Carnegie Hall, if you will.
What had just happened was a jolting turn of physicality. So in the merry locker room, somebody asked if Smart shows his players that exhilarated side.
“Oh, he shows one side,” linebacker Davin Bellamy said.
“What is that?” went the next question.
“Ripping your butt,” went the next answer.
It had been such a display of controlled brutality that the improbable numeral “7” had spent the afternoon and evening looming. That “7” had popped up early, on the scoreboard, beside Auburn’s name, after Auburn had opened by going 75 creative yards in 10 plays with seven sets of hands touching the ball, Jarrett Stidham throwing to Nate Craig-Myers for the final six yards. Had you wagered right then that that “7” would remain for good — menacing at Auburn, grinning at Georgia — you could have raided some wallets.
The “7” got doled to an offense, Auburn’s, which had averaged 36.7 points per game and had spent its past five must-win games scoring 52, 42, 40, 42 and 26 — the last figure on then-No. 1 Alabama. It reminded the 76,534 witnesses that the Georgia defense had been one of the towering units of college football before Auburn got hold of it on the loud Plains one day in November, and it meant that from 8-5 in Smart’s debut year after his long stewardship at Alabama under Nick Saban, Georgia could spring to 12-1. The “7” impressed even though Auburn star running back Kerryon Johnson looked well shy of total, his injured 13 carries producing 44 injured yards.
The Auburn edge in total yards on Nov. 11 was 488 to 230. Georgia nearly reversed it Saturday, outgaining the Tigers 421 to 259. True freshman quarterback Jake Fromm, so beleaguered at Auburn, completed 16 of 22 passes, from capable throws to big-time throws, and said, “We kind of lost our composure in Auburn, and tonight, we held our composure, and we played really, really physically up front.” And as it goes sometimes in sports among the young, the tenor of the previous game had helped foment the tenor of this one.
“Throwing the ball when they already had us defeated,” Bellamy said. “Dancing with five minutes left. Not winning with humility. I mean, we knew we would see them again . . . and that was just planted in our head. You know, we’ve got a weight room, and the weight room has got the TVs with them dancing this week, and it had the audio of them saying this and saying that. It got us fired up, man.”
“Whenever we get our physicality questioned,” his fellow linebacker Lorenzo Carter chimed in, “then that’s when we know we’ve got to go to work. That’s one thing we pride ourselves on, and to say that somebody ‘out-physicals’ us is unacceptable.”
Their will, and Auburn’s “7,” carried on through an assortment of huge plays, three of them — one which changed the game, one which deepened the change, and one which helped cement the game.
For the first, with Auburn ahead 7-0 and 14 yards from making it bigger, Bellamy found himself one-on-one with a tackle, made his way around to see the ball sitting like a duck in Stidham’s hand. “Once I turned the corner, and I saw his back toward me, and he didn’t have his first read, and he was looking for his second read and scrambled out,” Bellamy said. “I saw the ball, and I just went for it,” spiking it away so it could roll to teammate Roquan Smith. Seven plays and 84 Georgia yards later, Fromm’s two-yard touchdown pass to Isaac Nauta jolted the game back to 7-7.
For the second, with Auburn trailing 10-7 in the third quarter, its star kicker Daniel Carlson, the SEC’s all-time leading scorer, lined up for a 31-yard field goal, which Carlson smacked, but which 310-pound Georgian DaQuan Hawkins-Muckle smacked away, to teammate Dominick Sanders. “I mean, I honestly didn’t know I blocked it until I blocked it,” Hawkins-Muckle said. “I saw the ball snapped, I got off the ball, put my hand up. I heard the tip. I didn’t even feel it. I just heard the tip. I just heard the fans go crazy, and I went, ‘Aw, I really just blocked this kick.’ It was a very exciting moment for me once I realized I’d blocked it.”
And for the third, Carter reached off the side of a block and slapped the ball from Johnson, another fumble to which Smith helped himself. That led to Fromm’s seven-yard touchdown pass to Terry Godwin in the left front of the end zone, and Fromm’s two-point-conversion pass to Godwin in the right front of the end zone. By then, it was 21-7, and with freshman D’Andre Swift’s 64-yard touchdown soon run tacked on, that left a locker room with happy linebackers from a brutish defense that had left a “7” sitting there all afternoon long.
“At the end of the game three weeks ago,” Bellamy said, “everybody was upset, but there was a calmness.”
“He has a killer mind-set,” Carter said of Smart. “It’s a trickle-down effect. . . . He just let us know that there’s a standard, there’s a new standard at Georgia.”
Then, his tough coach having doffed his visor outside, Bellamy could say something that could have sounded false but, on Saturday, had come to make ironclad sense: “The team that showed up on the field three weeks ago,” he said, “was not a Georgia Bulldogs team.”
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