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Is Winning the SEC East as Far as These Bulldogs Can Go?

Georgia laid a 34–17 whooping on Kentucky Saturday in Lexington to win its second consecutive SEC East title, and thus met the minimum acceptable requirement for a successful season. Aside from a bit of hootin’ and hollerin’ on Kroger Field after the game, there wasn’t much fanfare for the Bulldog’s latest accomplishment. Division titles don’t mean as much when your expectation is national titles.

Since the season began, we’ve had our eyes on locking down the East as soon as possible. Mission accomplished. Now we move on to bigger fish. With another division title in hand and a trip to Atlanta for a national championship rematch against Alabama booked, it’s time to start looking ahead to the next goal for these Bulldogs.

The goal is simple: Beat Alabama in the SEC Championship Game and qualify for the College Football Playoff. Unfortunately, there are three games between now and the showdown in Atlanta. Thanks to the loss to LSU, another loss could dash Georgia’s playoff hopes before it even gets a chance to play the Tide.

In the final three weeks of the season, Georgia faces Auburn, UMass and Georgia Tech at home. The Dawgs can and should win each game. None of the three have more than six wins, and one of them is UMass. But the Dawgs could lose one of the games if it gets caught looking ahead to Alabama. The Tigers are talented enough to run with Georgia, even if they’ve been awful, and Georgia Tech’s triple-option can get the best of any defense that isn’t up for it.

Although there’s the danger of getting caught looking ahead, it’s a blessing of sorts that Georgia gets three games to prepare for Alabama, because of the myriad issues this team has. And those issues have to be taken into account when determining what the expectations are over this final stretch, especially in a game against this Alabama juggernaut.

The most pressing issue is physicality along both lines of scrimmage, which often manifests itself in poor execution on short yardage situations. It’s a problem on both sides of the ball, but more on offense than defense. (The defense’s biggest problem is tackling.) Kentucky, like Florida last week, denied Georgia multiple times on the 1-yard line and forced a field goal in the fourth quarter.

The short-yardage issues can at least partially be chalked up to the high number of injuries suffered to offensive linemen. With so many guys out at different points of the season, there’s been no way to build continuity among that young group of players. Staying healthy over the next three games, specifically at offensive line, will be integral to challenging Bama for the SEC.

The good news is that, in general, the team seems to be hitting its stride at the right time. Jake Fromm is back to playing within himself and not making silly mistakes, while the running backs are living up to their significant hype. Against Kentucky, D’Andre Swift and Elijah Holyfield rushed for 156 and 115 yards, respectively. On defense, they’re finally figuring out how to stop the run, limiting the Wildcats to 84 yards. All told, in the last two weeks Georgia has looked much better than it did for stretches of the first half of the season or in the loss to LSU.

But “better” may not matter against Alabama, because, my God, it might be the best college football team I’ve ever seen. Case in point: Alabama went to Baton Rouge on Saturday—a place where Georgia lost to LSU by 20 points—and beat the Tigers 29-0. Tua Tagavailoa had by far his worst game of the season. He passed for 295 yards and two touchdowns. Against Georgia, LSU gained 475 yards and gave up 322. Against Alabama, it gained 196 yards and gave up 576.

The goal is to beat Alabama in the SEC Championship Game, but that shouldn’t necessarily be the expectation. We’ve watched this Georgia team for nine games now, and there just seem to be too many issues to mount a real national title challenge this season. But most of the best players on this team have multiple years of eligibility remaining, and Kirby Smart is constantly stocking the cupboard with 4- and 5-star talent.

This might not be the year, but the Dawgs will be better next season and even better the season after that. The window of opportunity is not about to close. So while it would be disappointing to lose to Alabama in the SEC Championship, it wouldn’t be devastating. It wouldn’t even be unexpected.