What a difference a year makes for UGA

What a difference a year makes for UGA 

Posted: 9:43 pm Thursday, October 5th, 2017

By Jay Black

I couldn’t believe it when I saw it. And I was there. I still can’t quite believe it now.

Yes that was the scene in Athens a year ago.

The 2016 Georgia Bulldogs lost to Vanderbilt. At home. In a real football game.

“I’m sick to my stomach,” said Kirby Smart after that 17-16 defeat. “I’m embarrassed by the performance.”

It’s hard to fathom that Georgia lost to Vanderbilt on that gray, cloudy day in Athens. It might be just as hard to imagine that only one year later, that team has turned into this team. 5-0 and ranked No. 5 in America.

King Kirby and his nation have nothing to be embarrassed about right now.

Last year, Smart said “this one is on me.” He was correct because he’s the coach.

I wrote after the game. “So at least he knows what to say, but that’s easy. The hard part is, does he know how to fix it?”

I think now we have a pretty good answer. Seems like he knew the repairs.

It truly is amazing what a second year under a coach will do for a program; how 365 more days of the same message causes this much growth in a football team.

“We’ve grown up a little bit as a team,” said Smart. “I think they’ve seen the evidence in the practice habits they have.”

These are basically the same players that lost to the Commodores, despite statistically dominating that football game. UGA allowed 171 yards in that game. That was the fewest yards a Smart coach team had given up until last week. Kirby’s team lost that first game, the next it won by epic proportions (41-0 at Tennessee if you’re just waking up from your coma).

This is an improvement.

Through five games, there aren’t many parts of the 2016 team that you wished you had on the 2017 squad (Isaiah McKenize returning punts?). The only thing that has dropped statistically is the passing yards, but why throw it when your defense keeps giving you a short field and you can run the ball?

What has impressed me the most is how Georgia has turned around nearly all aspects of its special teams. Special teams screw ups are one of the quickest ways to get upset. It’s the main reason why the Commodores won this game last year (and Zach Cunningham didn’t help either).

Georgia has allowed minus-4 yards total in punt return yards this season. That is number one in America. Last year UGA was 51st in this category. A year ago, Rodrigo Blankenship and the other kickers had touchbacks on kickoffs 36 percent of the time (65th in America). This year, that number has more than doubled to 75 percent (11th in America).

That’s a pretty good fix.

Cameron Nizialek might be UGA”s MVP (AJC)

When Blankenship kicks the ball out of the end zone and Cameron Nizialek keeps forcing fair catches, there’s no free points. You make the offense score on Georgia defense.

In a related story, Georgia has  given up the fewest yards in the SEC. I think that’s a successful plan.

I know, Georgia will always be expected to lose a game it shouldn’t until it wins all the games it should. But it really is hard to believe that’s going to happen in the next two weeks.

That being said, the air gets a little thinner when you get closer to the top. Nobody on this football team has played for a 5-0 Georgia team before.

So can they handle it?

You’ll hear all the clichés from the players about taking it “one game at a time” and “blocking out the noise” and “keep chopping wood.” Etc.

But I was a little surprised to hear Kirby Smart — sort of — acknowledge that things do change a little when you rise from a good team to a contender.

“I don’t know that you coach them any harder,” said Smart on Tuesday. ” I certainly think you’ve got to pay attention to detail more. Every little thing you better be on top of…because success sometimes breeds complacency and that’s one thing we won’t stand for here, is to be complacent.”

So now a set of problems have arrived. The whole country is watching what the Dawgs do from here.

Has Kirby Smart equipped his team to handle that attention? We will find it.

But that’s a much better issue to have than trying to figure out what to do after losing to Vanderbilt on homecoming.

We’ve really have come a long way in one year.

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