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Smith: Close call against Tennessee may have been just what Bulldogs needed

Threading through traffic on my way home after the Tennessee game, taking back streets and working against the traffic, I thought of several positives in Georgia’s pulsating 51-44 victory.

First, a win is sweet no matter how you earn it. However, it is important to learn from mistakes — which is the central theme for the Bulldogs this week. The conclusion here is that the close game was probably the best thing that could have happened to Georgia.

If anyone needs to be reminded — young kids are impressionable. You are the University of Georgia averaging 47.5 points per game, you are favored over Tennessee by two touchdowns and before the crowd can get settled, the lead is 27-10.

With the Gamecocks on their minds, did the Bulldogs become distracted? Did they subconsciously consider that they had the game under control? They would only be human if those were their thoughts.

As coach Mark Richt advised his players before the game, Tennessee has outstanding players. They have tradition, they believe they can compete. To win, you have to earn it.

Any championship team has to prevail when it is close. Teams cannot go through a 12-game schedule and not endure outings when they experience close calls. There was no greater example of that than the 1980 Georgia national championship team, which had five games decided by a touchdown or less. Georgia won every close game and then defeated Notre Dame in the Sugar Bowl, 17-10.

This is not to suggest that Georgia is on the way to a national championship, but it has a team which could develop into a champion if it continues to win close games. And who would project anything but a tight matchup Saturday night in Columbia, S.C.? There is no one with the clairvoyance to identify and predict the close games, which is why you have to win games when you do not play well — if you are going to compete for a championship.

Every season, I hark back to the philosophy of Gen. Robert Neyland of Tennessee, who held the view that you can get your team up for a peak performance, perhaps, twice a year. In his era, teams usually played 10 games.

The peak-performance factor is exactly why Georgia has an opportunity to manage its schedule for the best opportunity under athletic director Greg McGarity.

McGarity knows how important scheduling is to a football team. He had hardly gotten the bookshelves dusted off in his office before he moved post haste to cancel the home-and-home series with Oregon. Not only is Oregon tough to beat, the long trip to the West Coast and back could very well cost you the next game. Remember beating Arizona State in 2008 in Tempe and then flying home against the sun and arriving back in Athens at 9 a.m. Sunday morning. Surely that contributed to the dismal first half against Alabama the next week in Athens when the visitors won 41-30.

Back to Neyland — he never scheduled two tough opponents back to back. A coach doesn’t have control of his schedule today, but Neyland’s approach should be followed as closely as possible. Fans understandably complain about having to pay the going rate for Buffalo and Florida Atlantic.

To enjoy the opportunity to contend for a championship, that scheduling pattern is a must. On Alabama’s schedule this year are Western Kentucky, Florida Atlantic and Western Carolina. That has been the Tide’s scheduling modus operandi for years. Load up your non-conference schedule with heavyweights and you can make a championship contender an also-ran in a hurry. No team can take the pounding, physically.

No doubt Georgia will be up for a peak game Saturday night in Columbia, where, for the first time this season, the Dogs will be the underdogs.

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