Georgia head coach Kirby Smart looks over his shoulder during the Bulldogs' game with Arkansas in Fayetteville, Arkansas, on Saturday, Sept. 26, 2020. (Photo by Walt Beazley/ Courtesy UGA Sports Comm)

Moving on from No. 4 Georgia’s sloppy second-half win at Arkansas, head coach Kirby Smart has turned his attention to the No. 7 Auburn Tigers, who will come to Athens for their Week 2 matchup on Oct. 3. Speaking to the media Monday in a virtual press conference via Zoom, Smart discussed preparing for a top 10 matchup, Georgia’s sluggish run game at Arkansas and areas to improve on special teams.

Rivalry week expectations

Down 7-5 at halftime against Arkansas, Georgia was not playing on-par with its projection as a four-touchdown favorite over the Razorbacks. Despite taking the 27-point win, the Bulldogs didn’t consistently meet fans’ high expectations. While Georgia carries the burden of facing performance concerns despite a big win, Smart is focused inward.

“To me, is what we’re measured on — did we get the most out of these kids than we can, and did we grow them?” Smart said. “I’m really not into the perception or the outside world, what they think. Because it probably doesn’t matter. At the end of the day, there’s so many naysayers out there.”

Trying to keep an even keel, Smart said the offense wasn’t as bad as they might’ve looked, and the defense made more mistakes than the score reflected.

He noted that mental errors in alignment and defensive reads could have yielded big gains similar to Arkansas’ one passing touchdown Saturday, but that the Razorbacks didn’t have the talent to exploit Georgia’s miscues.

Auburn, in its 29-13 win over No. 23 Kentucky this past weekend, proved it has the elite players to make Georgia pay for small lapses. And it starts with starting quarterback Bo Nix and his slate of receiving weapons.

“He’s got a really good set of receivers,” Smart said. “You talk about experience in the SEC, with the guys they’ve got at wideout — I mean those guys seem like they’ve been playing there forever.”

The Tigers’ top wideout from 2019, junior Seth Williams, exploded against Kentucky on Saturday, recording 112 receiving yards and two touchdowns. Eli Stove, now in his fifth year at Auburn, scored once on four receptions for 55 yards.

Given that Auburn ran 20 fewer plays than the Wildcats, its efficiency — especially late in the game — contrasts with Arkansas’ inability to generate productive drives in the second half against Georgia.

Full-team running game

Georgia didn’t display its usual rushing gusto against the Razorbacks. It’s 121 total rushing yards, accumulated mostly in the second half, led to just six points.

Redshirt sophomore Zamir White had Georgia’s longest run of the game with a 20-yard burst in the third quarter, but first-year offensive coordinator Todd Monken’s philosophy of explosiveness equaling victory went untested. Despite junior James Cook’s meager 26-yard showing, Georgia’s sluggish run game Saturday doesn’t fall solely on its running backs.

“It takes a cumulative effect of everyone doing their job,” Smart said. “And if one guys is off — if one receiver doesn’t cut off the safety, he turns what would be a 20-yard gain into a five yard gain … But I do think that we’ve got the people to do that with.”

The lack of both a push up front by the offensive line and clean, downfield blocking by receivers were Smart’s biggest takeaways from the Arkansas win.

Auburn held Kentucky to 145 rush yards on Saturday, a dip from the Wildcats’ NCAA fourth-best 278.8 rush yards per game last year. A more holistic rush game will be important for White and Cook to gain traction against the Tigers this week.

Special teams battle

From an outside perspective, Georgia’s special teams appeared to fire on all cylinders against Arkansas.

Junior punter Jake Camarda’s 48.9-yard punting average, redshirt sophomore receiver Kearis Jackson’s 17-yard punt return average and White's partial punt block in the third quarter bode well for first-year special teams coordinator Scott Cochran. Yet Smart still found some flaws.

“I wasn't exactly ecstatic about the special teams,” Smart said. “I thought that we missed some opportunities there [and] we left some things out there.”

Smart identified a burned timeout from miscommunication and the execution of returns as areas in need of improvement. Better blocking and better returns, especially against Arkansas’ still-developing special teams units, could have provided a spark for the offense, something Smart said is necessary for a young group.

Similar to Auburn’s offense, its special teams are stacked with experienced starters, making tighter execution on Georgia’s end a focal point for next Saturday.

“It’s going to be a competitive war on special teams,” Smart said.

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