Kirby is concerned.
With a 20-point lead halfway through the third quarter of Georgia's eventual 43–29 SEC East victory over the Missouri Tigers, Kirby Smart had a conniption. It was one of many moments in which Smart looked like a stark, raving lunatic in Columbia, and, brother, I felt your pain. We all did.
Following a late-hit penalty on a crucial third down deep in Georgia territory, cameras caught Smart pounding his chest and pleading with defensive lineman Tyler Clark, "TYLER! TYLER! WHY? WHHYYYYYYY?" (The penalty was actually on Jonathan Ledbetter.) Missouri went on to score a touchdown on that drive to make the final quarter and a half too close for comfort for Bulldog fans.
Of all the big plays and crazy moments in the 14-point win, that penalty—one of seven for Georgia on the day—is the moment that sticks out most in the aftermath. Maybe that's because we're entering the "Pleading for Perfection" portion of the Kirby Smart era. Georgia played badly Saturday, but only by the standards of this new age of Georgia football. All things being equal, a two-touchdown win over arguably the second-best team in the SEC East is a really good win, one Georgia fans would've been ecstatic about two or three years ago, but few were pleased with that win. Neither were Smart or his players.
Yet I remain optimistic, not in spite of, but because of the anger I and Dawg fans everywhere felt after that win. Championship-caliber teams beat good opponents on bad days, which is exactly what Georgia did Saturday. It gave me confidence that when this team actually does put it all together and plays a game free of errors, it will be a sight to behold. This was a bad performance we should all feel good about.
Offensively, Georgia wasn't as sharp as it should have been against an underrated defense. This largely stems from the ground game, the fulcrum of this offense. The Dawgs finished with 185 rushing yards, their first game this season in which they didn't eclipse 250 yards on the ground.
Jake Fromm and the passing game also struggled at times, but did show an incredible capacity for big plays. Of Fromm’s 260 passing yards, 148 came on a trio of long touchdowns to Riley Ridley, Jeremiah Holloman and Mecole Hardman. That big-play ability was exactly what we wanted Fromm and the passing game to develop this season. Now, if the running game can get back near the level it was at last year with Nick Chubb and Sony Michel, baby, you've got a stew going.
But the saving grace of this game, and arguably what prevented an upset, was another weapon every fan hoped the Dawgs would add to their arsenal this season: big plays on defense. Against Missouri, 17 points could be attributed to the defense or special teams. First was Tyson Cambell's 64-yard strip-and-score to go up 7-0 in the first quarter. Then came Tae Crowder's interception off a tipped Drew Lock pass in the second quarter, returned 43 yards to set up a field goal. Finally, Eric Stokes Jr. blocked a punt and returned it for a touchdown to put Georga up by 13 with about six minutes left in the first half.
More than anything, that ability to swing games through defense and special teams is what Georgia lacked last year. The Dawgs only had one non-offensive touchdown last season: J.R. Reed's fumble return in garbage time against Florida. Through four games this season, they already have four. Georgia's ability to create points on defense and special teams was the difference against Missouri, and it could ultimately be the difference in this season.
While everything might not have gone right in this game, enough did for the team to never trail and win by two scores. But if you still don't feel good about it, feel good about this: You ain't a Tennessee fan. The Vols lost 47–21 to Florida Saturday night at Neyland. Call me optimistic—actually, call me realistic—but I think it gets much worse for the Vols when they travel to Athens this weekend. If all goes as it should, it should be a performance we will feel great about.