This time last year Georgia’s record stood at 4-4. The run game was coming off a 21-yard showing against Florida, and conversations as to whether the Bulldogs would become bowl eligible in Kirby Smart’s first season began to arise.
Fast forward 12 months. Georgia is undefeated and the No. 1 team in the College Football Playoff rankings. But it’s not just that the Bulldogs are winning that makes this season different than the last. It’s how they’re winning.
“It's the total opposite,” running back Nick Chubb said. “I haven't played in many fourth quarters at all this year.”
In Georgia’s eight wins from 2016, the median margin of victory was seven points. Meanwhile, in the eight wins the Bulldogs have accumulated this season, the median margin of victory is 28 points.
Georgia didn’t win a game last year by more than 14 points. This season, it’s only had one win that was by fewer than 20 points — the early-season, one-point win over Notre Dame, which is now ranked third nationally.
“You come here, you go into the mentality that you're going to beat teams as good as you can and play up to your full potential,” tight end Jackson Harris said. “It's exciting. It's rewarding.”
And the byproduct of having an abundance of these games that don’t require last-minute heroics has been how backups have had a chance to get significant playing time. Because when Chubb-status players are spectating from the sideline, their less experienced counterparts are starting to become a bit more familiar with the in-game action.
“You may not see much now,” Harris said, “but down the road, just getting those few reps here and there will make a difference.”
And it’s not just in games against non-Power Five opponents like Samford and Appalachian State. The backups have had considerable time in Southeastern Conference matchups.
Playing behind Chubb and Sony Michel last year, Brian Herrien had 63 carries and Elijah Holyfield ran the ball six times as freshmen.
Now, even though they’re still behind Chubb and Michel, along with standout freshman D’Andre Swift, Herrien has 51 carries and Holyfield has 32, with four more matchups of the regular season and multiple postseason games likely ahead. Even the sixth-string running back, Prather Hudson, has run the ball six times.
And the fewer carries have perks for Chubb, too. He said thanks to the shared carries, he feels “better now than I did at the beginning of the season.”
The second-team defense made a last-second, goal-line stop against Mississippi State, and when the backup defenders have failed to do so in those situations, as they did against Florida, Smart told reporters after the game that he was “pissed.”
The scoreboard may look different than it did most of the time last year, but fullback Christian Payne said the sideline expectations are unchanged, adding how Smart preaches “consistency over complacency.”
“You could be up 45 points, but you don't want to act like that,” Payne said. “You want to keep going and going. When you start doing that, it kind of molds bad habits into you.”
So then, if and when the Bulldogs finally do find themselves back in a game that resembles those of last year, they’ll be ready.