KNOXVILLE, Tenn.—Georgia’s pursuit of the unprecedented remains on track, and seems to be getting easier every week. If only Kirby Smart could give himself permission to revel in it.
Smart’s two-time national champion Bulldogs have won 27 straight games overall and a record-tying 28 consecutive Southeastern Conference games. They’re now the first program in league history to complete three straight 8–0 SEC seasons. Asked about that accomplishment after Georgia throttled Tennessee 38–10 Saturday, Smart said, “Yeah. I gotta go play (Georgia) Tech next week.”
Some people are afraid of heights. Some are afraid of sharks. Smart is terrified of complacency. Myopic focus is useful for coaches who are well-versed on the dangers of stopping to smell the roses, and Smart learned the Art of Repressed Joy from the master: Nick Saban.
I asked him Saturday night if it’s been fun watching this current team grow and improve dramatically as the season has gone along. His answer: “It’s fun tonight. It’s work during the week. I get tighter and tighter and tighter as the week goes along. I’m not coming in here comfortable. That wears on you. So you’ve got to relax and know you've done a good job.”
Smart said he heard Saban say recently that he’s enjoying what his Alabama team is doing. “You can learn from that,” Smart added. “I’m going to enjoy being around the team and the players.”
If Smart won’t fully let himself feel the fun in what his team is doing, the rest of us can do it for him. Because Georgia sure didn’t look like this in September. The lights started coming on in October, especially offensively. In November, they’re klieg lights that are blinding the opposition and illuminating a clear path to a three-peat.
“We’ve taken huge strides,” quarterback Carson Beck said.
Starting with the Kentucky game, the Dawgs’ sixth of the season, they’re churning out 7.5 yards per play. They came into the weekend fifth nationally in total offense. They also came into this game leading the nation in third-down conversions at 55.7%—and then they converted nine of 13 against the Volunteers (69.2%).
In three straight games against ranked opponents, Georgia has outscored Missouri, Ole Miss and Tennessee 120–48. The Tigers put up a fight into the second half, but the Rebels and Volunteers were extinguished by halftime. The performance Saturday was particularly impressive because Tennessee had a 14-game home winning streak going, dating to the last Georgia visit. The Dawgs broke it with brutal efficiency.
The Vols gave it the good ol’ Rocky Top try against the new No. 1 team in the College Football Playoff rankings. They had Peyton Manning in the building. They brought in Dolly Parton to make an appearance between the first and second quarters. They scored a 75-yard touchdown on the first play of the game, whipping the crowd of 101,915 into a deafening frenzy.
Georgia was unfazed.
The Dawgs quickly extinguished upset hopes by scoring on four of their first five possessions. They sufficiently took the crowd out of the game for Beck to declare, “Auburn was louder.”
As this Georgia team tends to do, it reached down the depth chart to find yet another new star. This time that player was Dillion Bell, who came into the game as the team’s eighth-leading receiver.
A three-star recruit from the Houston area, the sophomore threw a touchdown pass on a halfback pass, caught a touchdown and had career highs of 90 receiving yards and 119 all-purpose yards. On a day when big-play receiver Ladd McConkey was again slowed by injury, Bell was the next monster up. There is always another one in red and black.
But the true blossoming star is Beck, who replaced a hero in Stetson Bennett and now is performing every bit as well. Last year, Bennett had a pass efficiency rating of 161.2; Beck came into this game at 167—and then improved upon that by throwing for 298 yards and three touchdowns while completing 80% of his passes with no interceptions.
“Every rep, he’s getting faster making reads, making checks,” said tight end Brock Bowers. “That lets him go out and play at a higher level.”
New offensive coordinator Mike Bobo kept a tight leash on Beck early in the season; the game plans were full of safe throws and short routes. Now, he’s routinely pushing the ball downfield, with four different Georgia receivers having catches longer than 20 yards Saturday.
On a team that didn’t appear to have a Heisman Trophy candidate, a case could now be made that Beck is working his way into the conversation. In addition to stellar overall statistics, Smart pointed out that Georgia hasn’t needed him to stack up monster passing yards to win. The Bulldogs’ defense is stout enough that Beck hasn’t had to win any shootouts—unlike, say, LSU’s Jayden Daniels, who is playing on a team with a lousy defense.
“The worst thing for Beck individually is that he plays with a good defense,” Smart said. “Some teams, they’ve got to score 40 a game. We don’t think we have to.”
Georgia can and does score 40 a game—40.4, to be precise. But if the Dawgs had simply scored 22 in every game this season, they’d still be undefeated. While this defense isn’t the brick wall of the past two seasons, nobody has scored more than 21 on it through 11 games. Only once all season has Georgia had a one-score win.
So the machine churns on, into a rivalry game that already had Kirby Smart stressed before he even got out of Knoxville. Then comes the real test, against Alabama in the SEC championship game. From there, perhaps, a third straight playoff appearance.
“It’s not easy, guys,” Smart said. “It’s hard to win. And I don’t appreciate that sometimes until you’re talking to the other coach before the game and they say, ‘Man, it’s hard to do what y’all have done.’”
Georgia just makes it look easy. Almost every single time.