ATHENS, Ga. — The first College Football Playoff poll comes out on Halloween night. That seems wholly appropriate for Georgia right now because the holiday’s ghostly traditions are rooted in a belief that the boundary between the worlds of the living and dead is blurred that evening, and it’s difficult to know if the Bulldogs are really the nation’s best football team or merely a bunch of guys wearing $2 masks from Walgreens.
It doesn’t matter, yet, thanks to the blessings of the schedule makers. But the Dogs look average right now. They’re a less impressive 3-0 team than Missouri, or Duke. For three straight games, they have started slow against inferior opponents they were expected to flatten. The first half of their SEC opener against South Carolina Saturday started with a kickoff out of bounds, ended with a sack (and boos) and in between resulted in one field goal, two blown red zone possessions, pedestrian coverage on defense that led to two touchdowns and a 14-3 deficit.
They won 24-14, so that certainly pleased the program’s coach and players and anybody who didn’t give 27 1/2 points in Las Vegas. But for a program that is coming off consecutive national championships, this is worthy of disappointment. Or angst.
Or, in the case of those booing the team off the field at Sanford Stadium in the first half, anger.
Carson Beck rallies Georgia from halftime deficit to beat South Carolina
Georgia coach Kirby Smart initially tried to lighten the mood when asked what he has seen in the slow starts against Tennessee Martin, Ball State and South Carolina.
“We adjust well at halftime,” he said, smirking.
Eventually, he acknowledged what everybody else is thinking.
“My expectation is we go out and dominate and create a nightmare and make people never want to play you again. We didn’t do that,” he said.
Moments later: “You are what you do on the field, and we are a team that’s played three average first halves. I don’t even know if they’re average.”
The Bulldogs punted on three of their first four possessions against an FCS opponent (UT Martin). They failed to score on their first two drives against Ball State. Those games should have been a big enough wake-up call for the first SEC matchup at home against a South Carolina team not expected to win a ton of games this season.
It wasn’t. That’s a problem. There were physical errors and mental lapses on both sides of the ball. There were missed tackles and misplays on third-and-long coverages, and the Gamecocks appeared to control both lines of scrimmage in the first half.
It certainly was a positive sign that Georgia players stayed calm, showed resiliency and the offense drove to touchdowns on its first two drives and three of the first four in the second half. It should be comforting that the defense tightened up, applied pressure on Spencer Rattler and pitched a shutout in the second half.
But the Dogs are tempting fate. It won’t be easy to quickly rebound against good teams … whenever/if ever they actually play a good team. Quarterback Carson Beck, offensive coordinator Mike Bobo, the defense — they all have much to prove.
Will the current struggles matter? Maybe not. South Carolina coach Shane Beamer told Smart on the field after the game that the Bulldogs affirmed they were a championship team because of the way they responded to adversity.
“Teams that are championship caliber find a way when they don’t have their best game,” Smart said. “We have to figure out why we don’t.”
It’s a forgiving schedule. The Dogs must travel to Auburn in two weeks and have games against Florida, Ole Miss and at Tennessee. All present some level of a challenge. But they’ll likely be significant favorites in every regular-season game.
This season probably won’t unfold as badly as it did in 2008, but there’s a reason to recall that season. That was the last time Georgia was a preseason No. 1 in polls. That team was so unimpressive in the opening win over Georgia Southern that it dropped to No. 2. It was even less impressive in a 14-7 win over South Carolina two weeks later and fell again to No. 3.
The full ugly exposure came in the fifth game, when Georgia was dismembered at home by Alabama, falling behind 31-0 at halftime. Before the season was over, they would be body-slammed by Florida and lose at home to Georgia Tech.
This team almost certainly won’t tumble like that team. But there should be concerns. Will this team continue to play good only when it has to, or will it prove to be a team not worthy of its billing — just a pretty good, but not great, team?
“There’s lots we can do better,” Smart said. “Start better. What’s causing it? Why are we doing it? The world has questions on all these things.”
Maybe the view will improve. But right now, they look no better than average.
(Top photo of Dillon Bell running in for a touchdown in the third quarter against South Carolina: Todd Kirkland / Getty Images)