ATHENS, Ga. — The rain, which had deigned to leave a few hours before the game, returned in the final moments. Jordan Davis didn’t care, walking over to his old friends at the Redcoat Band almost two years since the day he saw them at his own last game. That moment, a fitting ending, the connection between the past and present of Georgia football.
This was the most feel-good of nights. Stetson Bennett was back, smiling wide. Kelee Ringo, Nolan Smith, Champ Bailey, Aaron Murray, stars of different eras were all there. Even Mark Richt, whose presence was noted on the scoreboard in the first half, caused his successor Kirby Smart to look up and feel the pressure.
“Man, I can’t mess this game up with all these dudes here,” Smart said.
Georgia is a program guided by its history. The pregame video intro, read by the ghost of Larry Munson, starts almost at the beginning and takes fans through eras and moments, Lindsay Scott, the Hobnail Boot, the Rose Bowl and then as many of the great moments from the past two years that can fit.
The question the last few months has been where this 2023 team would fit in. For most of this season, it seemed to suffer in comparison to the ’21 and ’22 teams. The games were too close. The defense wasn’t as dominant. The offense was, well, really good, but people liked to nitpick anyway.
As this season has gone on, however, something has happened with this team. Not only has it kept winning — 27 games and counting for the program — but it’s doing it in ways that tell people: Oh yeah, there’s Georgia.
No. 2 Georgia dominates No. 9 Ole Miss to remain unbeaten
There’s Georgia routing No. 9 Ole Miss, 52-17. There’s Georgia’s offense racking up 611 yards, split almost in half between rushing and passing. There’s Georgia’s defense, recovering from a rough start to hold Ole Miss to a combined 19 yards on 21 plays over a six-drive stretch in the middle of the game.
There’s Georgia, finally playing its best at just the right time.
“From the first game of the season when everybody was talking bad about us, we knew the potential that we had,” senior tailback Kendall Milton said. “We knew what we were capable of, we knew at some point things were going to start shaking. I’m just blessed to have the resilient team that we have, we don’t let anything get in our way. We continue to build. We stay on the incline every week, and I can’t wait to see how far we take it.”
Peaking at the right time?
“Nowhere near the peak. Not even close,” Milton said. “We’re at the base still. Nowhere near the peak.”
Georgia is flexing enough it’s worth wondering if it should be in the College Football Playoff if it goes 12-0 and then loses to Alabama in the SEC championship. The problem with that is there aren’t enough spots in the four-team field right now; Florida State and Texas, the last hopes in the ACC and Big 12, pulled out close games on Saturday. The Big Ten and Pac-12 have two viable contenders. Georgia may still have to win the SEC, unlike the past two years, when there was enough carnage that the Bulldogs were already in no matter what happened in the SEC championship.
But the fact it’s not a laughable discussion shows how much the Bulldogs have improved. The uneven performances against South Carolina and Auburn are now forgiven. Last week’s close win versus Missouri looks better the way the Tigers routed Tennessee on Saturday. (And makes next Saturday’s trip to Knoxville look all the more winnable for the Bulldogs.)
More importantly, the way Georgia dismantled Ole Miss has the twin impact of improving Georgia’s resume and reinforcing the eye test. Does Georgia now jump Ohio State for No. 1 in the CFP rankings? Eh, who cares about the order? The eye test is what matters now because the Bulldogs truly look like an elite team, not one living off what the past two teams did.
Zion Logue, a fifth-year senior, was asked what’s different about the journey this team is making.
“Just how resilient this team is,” Logue said after thinking a moment. “Things might not always go our way. But we’re going to keep fighting tooth and nail until that final whistle. And these last couple of games you just really see it.”
Logue and the starters were on the bench well before that final whistle on Saturday. But they did have an early challenge after Ole Miss became the fifth team to score an opening-drive touchdown against them. Lane Kiffin’s up-tempo offense was running effectively on Georgia, along with some well-timed passes, and it was 14-14 early in the second quarter.
In response, Smart and his brain trust huddled, schemed up some adjustments and …
Well no, that’s not what happened.
“No real adjustments,” Smart said. “The calls we had worked. They’ve just got to play them well. We’ve got two young backers who were nervous to start the game.”
That would be CJ Allen, starting in place of injured inside linebacker Jamon Dumas-Johnson, along with fellow freshman Raylen Wilson. Guess who finished as the team’s leading tackler? Allen, with nine, including a sack.
That’s the character of this year’s defense: It’s not up to the standard of the past two years, but it picks the right times in the games to be dominant. Remember how the 2021 defense played great for a dozen games, then got hit by Alabama in the SEC championship and seemed to fold in shock? This year’s defense is already used to taking those hits and coming back.
“This team is different because we can take a punch,” safety Javon Bullard said.
“We just had to settle down and play Georgia football,” Logue said of Saturday’s game. “We knew they were going to hit some big plays, they’re a good team. We know when we get that call we have to communicate and play to the next play, and win the now.”
Georgia TE Brock Bowers returns against Ole Miss
Georgia’s offense, meanwhile, entered this season with so many questions and has ended up with so many answers. Carson Beck is rocketing up NFL Draft boards. Ladd McConkey is a playmaker at receiver, but not the only one. Brock Bowers, whose injury was in some quarters cause for alarm, is already back. And as the season enters the final stretch Milton is turning it on, teaming with Daijun Edwards to give the Bulldogs a dynamic rushing attack.
“It’s not one guy. There are dudes everywhere,” Smart said, meaning the different players who contribute in all ways, including blocking. But he could’ve been talking about the skill positions. It’s a loaded group, and no wonder Smart, when offensive coordinator Todd Monken took his talents to the NFL, opted for continuity with Mike Bobo. That decision gets validated more every game.
Smart, since he returned to his alma mater as head coach, has always balanced looking forward with appreciating the past. Sometimes the two have melded, such as bringing back much of Richt’s offensive staff. Sometimes it’s just about the former players, like the ones Smart saw in the locker room before Saturday’s game: Mecole Hardman, Brian Herrien, Malik Herring, Nolan Smith.
“It’s emotional,” Smart said. “So many sacrifices were made to make this program what it is.”
But it’s easier to honor the past when the present is so good. Bowers, Bullard, Beck, these players are burnishing their own legend. Will it end with another ring? We’ll see. Alabama, Ohio State and Michigan are all good teams and if Georgia has its three-peat hopes ended by any of them it shouldn’t be a shame. Maybe this is falling too much into the moment, but as one stood on the field Saturday night it felt like the season was already a success. If it’s about moments, if it’s about relationships, not just wins, but everyone feeling good about what they’re doing, this team is already there.
Davis, who two years ago conducted the Redcoat Band, stood in front of it in the rain on Saturday night. He smiled, then he danced. And the band played on. At this Georgia program, the stars come and go and then come back. And the band plays on.
(Top photo: Brett Davis / USA Today)