There have only been two games so far in the 2018 season, but something has already shifted in the approach for Georgia’s football team this season. After two commanding victories to start the season, the focus is not on Georgia’s upcoming opponent, Middle Tennessee, but on itself.
“I’ve got my message set for the team today, and it’s really about that alone,” head coach Kirby Smart said on Sept. 10. “It’s not anything about who we play or any disrespect for Middle Tennessee. It’s about us and competing within practice. We’ve got some really good competitions going on for guys who are battling for playing time and battling for spots.”
The inward-looking approach comes after the measuring stick that was the top-25 matchup in Columbia, South Carolina, a game the Bulldogs won 41-17. Georgia knows what it takes to go into a hostile environment and win because they have already accomplished it. Instead of wondering what the moment will bring, it can now focus on how to prepare for those high-intensity moments when they arrive.
They are sure to arrive again, too. Georgia still has to travel to Baton Rouge to face a top-15 LSU team before they host No. 7 Auburn in Sanford Stadium. The new approach is not guaranteed to deliver more victories, but it does show that the Bulldogs have cleared an important hurdle.
“I think the only way you develop your team toward the end goal is to be as good as you can possibly be at the end of the season and to improve during the season,” Smart said. “And that’s where I think we can separate ourselves because we can improve during the season. We have enough depth to go against each other and continue to improve, and that’s the end goal for us.”
The idea of dependence on one another instead of on an opponent is validated when viewing the Bulldogs’ remaining competition outside of LSU and Auburn. The seven other teams slated to line up against Georgia averaged approximately five wins in 2017, and one of those teams was 7-win Middle Tennessee. Instead of practicing only to beat these kinds of opponents, Smart has Georgia practicing to compete with itself.
“Going against those guys every day makes it easier on Saturday,” defensive lineman Julian Rochester said on Sept. 10. “Going against Jake Fromm, a phenomenal guy, makes it easier on Saturdays for the whole defense. We just sharpen each other’s iron each day at practice.”
The message is not to be confused with ignoring the remaining opponents, because that isn’t it at all. Rochester was giving a quick scouting report on Middle Tennessee quarterback Brent Stockstill when he met with the media on Sept. 10, indicating that he has done his homework. Instead, it’s a new approach to fending off complacency as the third-ranked Bulldogs work to get back to the sport’s largest stage.
“The confidence level has always been the same, because we just want to play the best that we can play,” Rochester said. “That’s all that I can say. We started with South Carolina on Saturday, a great team victory, and we just want to make sure we stay consistent and keep doing the same thing because it all starts with practice and how we work.”