As a reporter’s question began about the youth of Georgia’s offensive line, Kirby Smart closed his eyes in thought.
There were two true freshmen, a redshirt freshman and two sophomores playing for the majority (after senior Lamont Gaillard suffered a hyperextended knee in the first quarter) of the Bulldogs’ 34-17 SEC East-clinching win over Kentucky. It took Smart a second or two to believe it.
“Crazy,” he said, a compliment to position coach Sam Pittman for his work. “It makes me nervous that they’re out there, but I also like having good players out there.”
It turns out that’s the case across the Bulldogs’ roster as many of its key contributors are underclassmen. The first two Georgia players to enter the postgame interview room were sophomores Monty Rice and Jake Fromm (by the way, all-but-two of the players made available were freshmen or sophomores).
“I don’t know where I’m supposed to go,” Fromm said.
Rice didn’t really know where to sit for interviews either, so he stood near the door and allowed the media scrum to form around him.
Whatever it may be, the momentary lapse of understanding that drew a few laughs could be a microcosm of the questions surrounding Georgia’s season entering Saturday’s game — despite being 7-1 and ranked No. 6.
Georgia had the talent. It was undoubted and justified with consecutive top-of-the-line recruiting classes, including the nation’s best in 2018. But the lackluster performances — many of which would’ve been easily-accepted victories before Smart came to town and raised expectations in Athens — left many unsure as to whether the Bulldogs had what it took to compete for another national title.
Is Georgia strong enough to put it together?
As the Bulldogs left Lexington the answer was yes, arguably a resounding yes.
It started with the 36-17 victory in Jacksonville that featured glaring errors but was convincing. Then, Georgia followed with the 17-point win, but it was one of its best performances from start-to-finish.
If a few plays broke in Georgia’s favor, it could’ve been a 40-point victory — whether it be the debatable pass-interference penalty on Deandre Baker, failing to score at the goal-line (again) or the 31-yard Kentucky touchdown pass to Amir Rose that deflected off of Tae Crowder.
Suddenly, the results would’ve mimicked the 41-0 rout of Tennessee and the 42-7 beat-down of Florida from 2017.
“It could’ve been 10-9 and we would’ve been happy,” said Georgia wide receiver Jeremiah Holloman, who led the team with four receptions. “It was just about going out there and doing what we to do.”
In reality, however, a blowout victory was the ideal (and probably desired) result for the Bulldogs. They wanted to prove a point after a mass of followers were skeptical. That includes this reporter who thought it was a reload year for Georgia and its youth would make it a longshot to return to the College Football Playoff.
It is well-known that the veteran leadership of Roquan Smith, Nick Chubb, Sony Michel, Javon Wims, Lorenzo Carter and others are long gone and playing professionally. On Saturday, the freshman defensive trio of Brenton Cox, Channing Tindall and Adam Anderson received a heavier-than-usual workload and made big plays.
“(We) do put in a lot of work and it starts to pay off toward the end of the season,” Georgia running back Elijah Holyfield said. “I feel like whenever other (teams) start to die down, we keep it going here at Georgia.”
Georgia’s turning point could’ve been during its off week, and one that came at a perfect time after suffering the 36-16 drubbing at the hands of LSU. It was the chance to recover, but also evaluate.
Despite the absence of a game that Saturday, the practice periods were as intense as ever, and Georgia was focused on improving from within.
As preparation for the Florida game began, Smart reflected on the productivity during that period: “I think they’re resilient. … Our players have responded well and go out and compete each day. I would expect no less from them.”
It could very well serve as the origin of ascent for the Bulldogs as they rattled off back-to-back double-digit wins away from Sanford Stadium. Now, Georgia is in its best-possible spot: finishing the season with three games in Athens, an SEC East berth clinched at the beginning of October and a team fully in control of its own destiny.
If Georgia is able to finish its regular season unscathed against three unranked teams, it will get its chance for revenge against Alabama; an Alabama team, mind you, that seems more-unbeatable than it did a year ago with a fully-loaded offense led by quarterback Tua Tagovailoa.
But it’s an opportunity that the Bulldogs relish as a rematch of the national title game — in the same building, no less.
Georgia knows it won’t be the favorite to beat the Crimson Tide after the top-ranked team proved itself at LSU with a 29-0 victory. But as the questions come, that could be when the Bulldogs show their best.
“It’s OK,” Rice said. “People are always going to talk. Ignore the naysayers. That’s what we’re going to do.”
One thing is clear: Forget the youth, Georgia has shown it is talented and good.
“We’re starting to come together,” running back D’Andre Swift said. “The sky’s the limit.”