ATHENS, Ga. — The honeymoon is over for Kirby Smart.
Georgia’s rookie coach is dealing with his first defeat, a blowout at the hands of Mississippi, and things don’t get any easier this week when No. 11 Tennessee visits Sanford Stadium for a Southeastern Conference game that has become a virtual must-win if the Bulldogs want to be a serious contender in the East Division.
“We’ve always said around here, ‘Humility is a week away,'” said Smart, who certainly sounded more humble on Monday than he had at previous news conferences. “When you talk about the SEC, you never get a chance to rest.”
Smart and the Bulldogs got a sampling of that last week in Oxford, where they fell behind 31-0 at halftime and 45-0 in the third quarter before a couple of meaningless touchdowns that did little to ease the sting of a 45-14 rout.
Georgia (3-1, 1-1 SEC) barely held its place in The Associated Press rankings, plunging 13 spots to 25th.
While Smart is always eager for his players to turn their attention to the next opponent, he doesn’t want them to totally put aside the last game. There were myriad mistakes that need correcting, from about 15 missed tackles to at least five dropped passes, a couple of which might’ve changed the course of the game.
“I don’t think you ever forget it,” Smart said, before adding, “When you’re playing a team like Tennessee, you better get over it quick.”
Georgia’s most immediate concern is the health of star running back Nick Chubb, who sustained a sprained left ankle in the first half and didn’t return.
Smart said it’s too soon to determine if Chubb will be able to play against the Volunteers (4-0, 1-0), who are riding high after a 35-point second half rallied them to a 38-28 victory over No. 23 Florida.
“We’re obviously hopeful he’ll be able to do something, but we won’t know more until later in the week,” Smart said.
If Chubb can’t go, the Bulldogs still have plenty of options at tailback, from veterans Sony Michel and Brendan Douglas to freshmen Elijah Holyfield and Brian Herrien.
“There’s always a lot of good running backs at Georgia, so I think we’ll be fine,” Douglas said.
A bigger issue for Georgia is the guys up front.
Since an impressive showing in the season-opening win over North Carolina, the backs have struggled to find a lot of running room. The Bulldogs managed only 167 yards rushing against FCS school Nicholls State, and they were held to 101 by Missouri.
The Bulldogs did have 230 yards on the ground against Ole Miss, but most of it came after the Rebels had built a commanding lead and were basically trying to avoid big plays. Still, Smart was encouraged by the way his linemen blocked for the run.
“We actually improved in that area,” he said. “It was all the other areas that imploded on us.”
Indeed, freshman quarterback Jacob Eason completed just 16 of 36 passes for 137 yards and had one interception returned for a touchdown. It didn’t help that he faced heavy pressure most of the game, leading to three sacks, or that his receivers dropped all those passes.
Smart also was miffed at the way his defense played. The Rebels piled up 510 yards on offense, not exactly the sort of performance he was used to seeing in his previous job as Nick Saban’s defensive coordinator at Alabama.
“Right now, we’re not a really good tackling defense,” Smart said. “The offenses we play, they get explosive plays on everybody. It’s more about limiting those. How do I give up less? If we tackle better and you take nine of the 15 missed tackles away, then you take away about seven big plays.”
Tennessee will be playing its first true road game of the year, its only trip outside of Neyland Stadium being a neutral-site contest at Bristol Motor Speedway. The Volunteers have a shot at sweeping Florida and Georgia, the teams expected to be their toughest challengers in the East, which would be a commanding position even this early in the season.
“This will be our toughest challenge to date,” Tennessee coach Butch Jones said Monday. “They have our attention. They have our respect.”
NOTES: Jones said he expects LB Jalen Reeves-Maybin (shoulder) to play Saturday but considers LB Darrin Kirkland Jr. “questionable to doubtful.” Kirkland has missed two games with a high ankle sprain.
AP Sports Writer Steve Megargee in Knoxville, Tennessee contributed to this report.
AP College Football website: www.collegefootball.ap.org