ATHENS — After a giddy couple of weeks, it’s back to reality for the Georgia Bulldogs.
A reality that, amazingly enough, still includes a shot at the national title.
Georgia (9-1) returned to the practice field Monday coming off an ugly performance at Auburn, a 40-17 blowout that sent the Bulldogs tumbling from second to seventh in The Associated Press poll and will end their two=week run atop the College Football Playoff rankings .
But, as awful as Georgia looked in pretty much every phase of the game, it wasn’t a knockout blow by any stretch.
If the Bulldogs win their next two games — Saturday’s home finale against Kentucky, followed by the regular-season capper against Georgia Tech — they would surely head into the Southeastern Conference title game with a reasonable shot at making the four-team playoff.
“Everything we want to do is still out there for us,” tight end Jeb Blazevich said. “You can’t look back. You can’t look forward. You have to look at right now. What can I do today to win this weekend? That’s where our heads are at. That’s where they’ve been all year.”
Having already clinched the SEC East, Georgia will face either top-ranked Alabama or No. 6 Auburn for the conference crown on Dec. 2 in Atlanta. A win over either of those teams — the SEC West title will be decided at the Iron Bowl — would be a huge boost to the playoff resume, even when that 23-point setback to the Tigers is taken into account.
“It’s never over,” nose tackle John Atkins said. “You can’t hang yourselves on a loss.”
Of course, the playoff won’t be part of the prize if the Bulldogs slip up either against Kentucky (7-3) or Georgia Tech (5-4).
That’s why coach Kirby Smart was so eager to turn his attention to the next game, responding tersely to pretty much any question about last weekend’s debacle.
“I am excited about moving on and getting a chance to go get to work on Kentucky,” he said. “That is what they have to do. The focus for us is totally on the Big Blue because we have to go out here and stop these guys.”
Smart said the players are already following his lead.
There’s no glossing over how bad the Bulldogs looked against Auburn, but it won’t help to dwell on it.
“First thing I have seen is guys came in here with a good attitude,” Smart said. “Ready to work, good spirits, leaders talking and communicating. I got to be around the players and eat with them yesterday. These players they will respond the right way. They are made of the right stuff and that is all we can ask them to do is to come in with a really good attitude, get to work. I expect them to do that.”
Kentucky isn’t part of the national championship mix, but this game carries special significance for the Wildcats as well. With a 4-3 mark in the SEC, they have a shot at their first winning record in conference play since 1977.
Auburn ran all over the Bulldogs for 237 yards, doing much of its damage out of the wildcat formation with Kerryon Johnson.
Kentucky will likely rely on much the same formula with Benny Snell, who last week became the first Kentucky player to rush for 1,000 yards in consecutive seasons. A year ago, when Georgia rallied for a 27-24 victory in Lexington , Snell rushed for 114 yards and two touchdowns — much of it while taking direct snaps out of the wildcat formation.
“Auburn does it a little different than them, but Kentucky does a really good job,” Smart said. “If it is working, you do it more. They had a couple of drives last year, particularly one at the end, they ran almost the whole series in the wildcat. They are good at it. They are physical. Our kids talked last year about that was the most physical game they played in from a defensive standpoint because it was so much grinding and hitting.”
Georgia has plenty of other things to clean up as well, from a suddenly stagnant running game (which produced just 46 yards against Auburn) to crucial mistakes on special teams to the rash of penalties resulting largely from a lack of discipline.
“We don’t have the luxury of time to sit around and feel bad for ourselves,” Blazevich said. “That’s the main message: get back to work. That’s all we can do.”