College Football: New No. 1 Georgia on hot seat
ATHENS, Ga.—The national spotlight isn't something the Georgia Bulldogs have had to deal a lot with over the past 10 years or so.
Times are changing.
The Bulldogs (8-0, 5-0 SEC) head into Saturday's game against South Carolina (6-2, 4-2) smack-dab in the discussion for the national title, rarified air the program is catching a whiff of for the very first time in the playoff era.
Georgia, which entered the week ranked second in both major polls, is now No. 1. Kirby Smart's team holds the top spot in the initial College Football Playoff rankings, released Tuesday night.
The Bulldogs were followed by Alabama, Notre Dame and Clemson 4. The goal is the national championship game, set for Jan. 8 at Mercedes Benz Stadium in Atlanta.
The semifinals are set for Jan. 1 at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena and the Sugar Bowl in New Orleans.
But first things first.
There's still a ton of work for the Bulldogs, who, after playing South Carolina, still have to deal with a game at Auburn before closing out the regular season against Kentucky and Georgia Tech.
"We're worried about South Carolina right now," Smart said. "That's all I'm thinking about."
With good reason.
South Carolina is no pushover. The Gamecocks have won three straight since losing to Texas A&M and are on the upswing in their second year under head coach Will Muschamp.
"Each week for us is all the same. Every week is a season as far as how we approach things. Certainly, we have respect for all of our opponents. We have respect for Georgia," Muschamp said.
"At the end of the day, it comes back to our preparation and how we prepare. ... I know our guys will go compete, and we plan on showing up."
Smart expects nothing less.
He knows how tough the Gamecocks can be, especially with sophomore quarterback Jake Bentley at the controls of an offense that has averaged 32.3 points over its last three games.
"I did not see a lot of the growing pains. I got to watch several of the games in the offseason, but as we played them he had not played much. Then, after our game, he came in and really played well," Smart said.
"He has just been around the game his whole life, so the guy knows where to go with the ball, he understands the offense, he does what they ask him to do really well. He is really athletic. He was a good athlete in high school. He went through a knee injury, but he is running the ball well now."
The Bulldogs aren't doing a bad job themselves.
Georgia is averaging 284 yards rushing per game, behind seniors Nick Chubb and Sony Michel, who have run for 765 and 629 yards, respectively.
Georgia ranks last in the SEC in passing yards per game with 162.6 per game. But that number is deceiving. Because of the running game, the Bulldogs haven't had to throw that much, although freshman Jake Fromm has been efficient when called upon.
In fact, among starters in the SEC, Fromm leads the league in passing efficiency with a rating of 171.9, completing 75 of 138 passes for 1,263 yards and 13 touchdowns.
South Carolina has tightened things up since giving up 237 rushing yards to Texas A&M in the last weekend of September. The Gamecocks have held Arkansas to 106 yards, Tennessee to 120, and Vanderbilt to 107 in their last three games.
"There is no question this is going to be our toughest task as far as the type of offense we're facing; the physicality that Georgia plays with, the elite backs that they have on the perimeter (and the) skill kids that they have," Muschamp said.
But there may be only much the Gamecocks can do. Fromm is making defenses pay for stacking the box against the run.
"You can't put any more in there than they are already putting without uncovering somebody. So, if you saw the Florida game, if Jake can just throw it to the ones they do not cover we would be OK, but they can't put many more in there than they are," Smart said.