ATHENS, Ga. — There’s been a lot of accolades and pats on the back directed toward No. 3 Georgia following its 41-17 victory over South Carolina.
With the win and what appears — at least early on — to be a watered-down SEC East, many experts are already telling the Bulldogs (2-0) to go ahead and back their bags for Atlanta and the SEC Championship game.
Georgia head coach Kirby Smart naturally scoffs at such a notion. Although defending their conference title is certainly the goal, Georgia enters this week’s non-conference game against Middle Tennessee State knowing its focus will have to remain the same.
Kickoff on Saturday at Sanford Stadium is set for 7:15 (ESPN).
“I really think the approach and the deal is that the pats on the back sometimes are not real. The pats on the back are all conditional. And we’re not into conditional love, conditional improvement,” Smart said. “We want to improve unconditionally; we want to be loved unconditionally. And the way you do that is by trusting and believing in your teammates and getting better. And we’re going to try to sell this team today, this week, and every week on getting better, because we can’t control all these outside forces.
“We can’t control what other teams do. We can’t control what people say. All we can control is how we work; and if the leaders buy into that message and understand that we have to get better to get where we want to go, then we usually can do that.”
Middle Tennessee head coach Rick Stockstill certainly respects the job that Smart and the Bulldogs have done.
“They played for the national championship last year. They’re up there at No. 3 this year. They’re projected to win the SEC East and to play for the national title again,” Stockstill said. “Our players are motivated and ready to go. They know the type of players, program, and atmosphere that we’re going into. But like I’ve said, we’re not going to back down from anybody.”
Despite dropping a 35-7 decision to Vanderbilt in the season-opener, MTSU’s confidence is not necessarily misplaced.
The Blue Raiders (1-1) traveled to Syracuse last year and beat the Orangemen in the Carrier Dome. They have routinely taken on the best that the Power Five conferences have to offer, although MTSU does come in 0-15 against teams ranked in the Top 25.
Having Brent Stockstill — yes, he’s the son of the head coach — also helps matters.
The younger Stockstill enters his senior season owning basically every career passing mark at MTSU, holding the top marks in attempts, completions, yards, touchdowns, passing efficiency and passing yards per game.
However, Brent Stockstill knows individual records won’t mean a thing when against the Bulldogs.
“We have to play perfect. It’s really not an exaggeration. If you want to hang with a team like that, you have to play perfect,” he said. “You have a great plan going in, have the ball bounce your way sometimes, have guys make plays, and hopefully you’ll have a chance in the fourth to put one in the end zone and have a chance to win. Hopefully, we’ll have a great week of practice and play perfect this weekend.”
Georgia, meanwhile, will continue trying to play to a standard of its own.
“I certainly coach from the beginning whistle to the end whistle exactly the same all the time. I don’t think the scoreboard matters. So, if the scoreboard doesn’t matter, why, if we’re down 25, 30, whatever like we were down at Ole’ Miss (in 2016), should I be coaching different than if we’re up 25, 30 against somebody at home,” Smart said. “I just don’t see the difference in that, because I believe in what we tell the players, which is playing to that standard, and playing like the scoreboard is not there. So, if you coach the same way, then the expectation for the player that goes in, whether you’re up or down, is exactly the same.”