ATHENS, Ga. -- The clock inside Sanford Stadium read 8:29, but the game was ostensibly over.
Georgia, ranked No. 11, led visiting No. 17 Mississippi State 31-3 on a warm Saturday night in late September, and in a few minutes, Kirby Smart would have one of those so-called signature wins every unproven head coach needs. A few weeks after going on the road and beating Notre Dame in the shadow of Touchdown Jesus, these Bulldogs had found validation.
But with Mississippi State facing a third-and goal from the Georgia 11, Smart looked utterly panicked. The 41-year-old clasped his hands over his head in anticipation. Something in Mississippi State’s alignment set off alarm bells in his head, and he started shouting at a defensive back, walking onto the field without thinking. A strength coach had to grab the waistband on Smart's khakis and pull him back to the sideline in order to avoid a penalty.
The pass from Nick Fitzgerald to Donald Gray fell incomplete, but facing fourth down, Mississippi State decided to go for it -- because why not? Smart’s stress level elevated back up to somewhere between frantic and frenzied. Fitzgerald threw another incomplete pass, only there was a flag this time. Targeting, the referee explained. There was an official review, and Smart stood impatiently beside a line judge awaiting the final verdict. The judge mumbled something in his direction, and Smart bounced away immediately, pumped his fist and smacked Georgia linebacker Walter Grant on the belly.
A moment later, it was announced that the call was overturned. Georgia took over on downs, and Smart was finally, mercifully, happy.
“It adds fuel to the fire,” Georgia senior linebacker Davin Bellamy said. “We look to the sideline, we see our coach pumped, jumping around. It makes us not want to disappoint.
“That stop was very exciting for us. We know our numbers last year in the red zone don’t show how good this defense is.”
Smart admitted later that a touchdown by Mississippi State in that situation would have left a bad taste in his mouth. Teetering on the edge of becoming a College Football Playoff contender, he seemed to understand that nothing can be taken for granted these days.
Georgia was the media’s pick to win the SEC East, but that wasn’t as much a testament to the confidence in what was going right in Athens as what was going so inextricably wrong in Gainesville, Florida, and Knoxville, Tennessee. The Gators and Volunteers boasted unproven quarterbacks and mediocre offenses, while the Bulldogs felt like the safe pick, armed with stellar running backs Nick Chubb and Sony Michel, not to mention a strong-armed, NFL-caliber quarterback returning in Jacob Eason.
Four games into the season, Georgia has become known for much more. Sure, Chubb and Michel have been spectacular, but Jake Fromm -- not Eason -- has been steering the ship at quarterback, and the defense has become the heart and soul of the program. Smart, along with defensive coordinator Mel Tucker, are guiding a group that has given up just 11.5 points and 269.8 yards per game thus far.
“Our defense is capable of being one of the best in the country,” said third-year sophomore defensive back J.R. Reed.
Sunday through Friday leading up to the game, players heard all about Mississippi State’s red-hot offense, which hung 37 points on LSU the previous weekend. Fitzgerald, Mississippi State’s dual-threat quarterback, was billed as the second coming of Dak Prescott. But Georgia shut down Fitzgerald’s ability to make plays with his feet, limiting him to 47 yards on 10 carries, while holding him to less than 100 yards passing and no touchdowns and claiming two interceptions.
It felt like a statement game between the hedges. Afterward, players such as Reed spoke about having a chip on their shoulder and how the outcome should create momentum for the rest of the season.
“Was I impressed? Yes, I won’t lie,” Bellamy said. “But we expected this.”
This is the most complete team that Bellamy has been a part of since he arrived on campus, he said.
“We were already confident. But playing a team from the SEC West -- a physical team -- I feel like that was the real most impressive thing, that we were able to come out and be physical and be more physical than them. And it showed on the scoreboard.”
The time to prove it hasn’t ended, though. On Saturday, on the road against Tennessee, Georgia has another hurdle to clear. Two years ago, the Bulldogs blew a 21-point lead to the Vols. Last year, a last-second Hail Mary did Georgia in.
A lot has changed since then, according to star Georgia linebacker Lorenzo Carter, who struggled to come up with the right words to describe Smart’s impact on the program. Overall, he said, the team energy is much better than in the past.
“We’re a physical football team that is going to keep fighting and keep pounding,” Carter said. “We play fast. We’re explosive. Our offense is getting it rolling. I mean, you can’t ask for much more.”
Still, it felt like third-and-goal again when Smart told reporters after the game that despite the score, it didn’t feel like a complete effort. Forget his team’s average yards per carry, he explained; 177 yards rushing wasn’t ideal for him. Players were starting to buy in that practice is important, he said, but by no means was he ready to call his group a finished product.
“Look guys, I know every one of y’all wants to write how great this was,” Smart said. “We still had dropped balls. We still had missed blocks. We still had missed tackles. We still have a lot of room for improvement. We have a team that has to go on the road this week just like Mississippi State had to after a big win.”
That sentiment should sound awfully familiar. It had all the earmarks of his former boss, Alabama coach Nick Saban, nitpicking his perennially No. 1-ranked program.
In tone and in execution, Smart is building a Bama-like defense at Georgia, and he has more than enough skill players on offense to carry the load.
Granted, there’s a long way to go. We’re only one-third of the way through the regular season. But after watching the way Georgia dominated Mississippi State from start to finish, the signs of a contender are there.