ATHENS, Ga. — There has been good reason to question Georgia’s worthiness as a Top 25 team for three straight weeks.
The No. 12 Bulldogs have had 10-point deficits in each of their two games against FBS teams, and they struggled to beat FBS Nicholls by only two points.
Even so, Georgia players say their confidence is soaring as they prepare to play No. 23 Mississippi on Saturday. That’s because Georgia (3-0, 1-0 Southeastern Conference) keeps finding ways to win.
The most dramatic example of the Bulldogs’ determination came in last week’s 28-27 win over Missouri when it took the lead on Jacob Eason’s 20-yard touchdown pass to Isaiah McKenzie with 1:31 remaining.
Eason, a freshman, threw the go-ahead scoring pass on a fourth-and-10 play. That was just the pickup in morale the Bulldogs needed following the shaky 26-24 win over Nicholls.
“It says a lot about who we are,” Georgia linebacker Reggie Carter said Monday. “We’re starting to create an identity as a team who always fights and plays hard. … I love my team, I just really love this team.”
The Bulldogs have staged successful comebacks after trailing North Carolina 24-14 in the third quarter and Missouri 10-0 in the first half.
“I think it has shown a resiliency in our team, being able to have those kinds of wins,” said fullback Christian Payne. “It shows we’re not going to stop, we’re not going to give up or anything like that. We’re going to keep fighting, keep chopping, until we get the victory.”
McKenzie has emerged as a go-to playmaker on a team which began the season leaning heavily on tailback Nick Chubb. Georgia won its SEC opener against Missouri even as Chubb was held to 63 yards rushing without a touchdown.
McKenzie, best known as a return specialist in his first two seasons, leads the SEC with five touchdowns and is second with 101.7 yards receiving per game. He set career highs with 10 catches for 122 yards and two touchdowns against Missouri.
Eason passed for 308 yards with three touchdowns and one interception in his second start. Eason played every snap, and his game-winning drive affirmed he has a solid hold on the starting job.
Coach Kirby Smart said last week he wasn’t ready to declare a firm winning in the long competition between Eason and senior Greyson Lambert. Smart said Monday Eason will start against Ole Miss.
“Jacob’s going to be able to start our game, assuming he has a good week of practice,” Smart said. “That’s the plan going forward, that if he continues to practice well and do the right things then he’ll be the starter.”
Smart said he won’t allow Eason — or any freshman — to be interviewed this season. “We’ve got a policy here, and Jacob Eason adheres to that policy, too,” Smart said.
Eason has not been available for interviews since signing day in February. Even though Georgia has not approved any media requests to interview freshmen this season, Monday was the first time the policy was clarified to be in place throughout the season.
NOTES: Smart was testy in answering questions about his offensive line, which has allowed nine sacks and has struggled at times in run-blocking, including against Nicholls. He asked “What went on last year?” He noted most of the players on the line are the same as in 2015 and his staff is working to make the players stronger. He also said coaches already have tried every combination on the line. The new starters on the line are Rhode Island transfer Tyler Catalina at left tackle and Lamont Gaillard at right guard.
AP College Football website: www.collegefootball.ap.org