ATHENS, Ga. — A trip to the Southeastern Conference championship game is out of the question this season for the Georgia Bulldogs.
They were nowhere to be found in Tuesday night's release of the top 25 teams in the College Football Playoff rankings, and the Bulldogs will enter Saturday night's game at Kentucky 4-4 overall and 2-4 in league play. This is the first time in 20 seasons the Bulldogs have entered November with only two league wins, but players insist there is still enjoyment to be found.
"You can have fun no matter what your record is," junior nose tackle John Atkins said. "You're supposed to have fun when you're playing football."
Having fun is not always a given, however, even among those pursuing a national title.
Bulldogs first-year coach Kirby Smart was Alabama's defensive coordinator in 2014, when the Crimson Tide pulled out a 14-13 win at Arkansas. Alabama had lost at Ole Miss the week before, and the Crimson Tide were coming off a disappointing finish to the 2013 season that included a dramatic defeat at Auburn and a two-touchdown loss to Oklahoma in the Sugar Bowl.
Two days after the win in Fayetteville, Crimson Tide coach Nick Saban, sensing the weight of expectations on his program, said, "I was just happy to see our players be happy about playing the game and winning."
Smart wants to keep his debut season fun and knows he can't do it alone.
"I think that's on the coaching staff and the whole organization," Smart said.
"Everybody has to be on board and understand that 90 percent of what you do is self-talk. If you're talking to yourself the wrong way, then you're in trouble. Kentucky has won four out of five. They've probably got good self-talk going on. We probably don't.
"So we are convincing our kids and making them understand that what they believe is who they are. If you believe that you're a bad team, then you probably are. If you believe that you're a good team, then you probably are. That's the sell we've got to do a great job of as coaches with our players, to be honest with you."
It's a balance Smart is having to reach, given that he also is trying to implement his imprint on a program that spent the past 15 seasons under Mark Richt. There are lessons and concepts to be taught every day — not only by Smart but new coordinators Jim Chaney and Mel Tucker and other new assistants.
"It makes it tough, but at the same time, we can also have fun with it," senior linebacker Chuks Amaechi said. "We are able to mold with Coach Smart, and he is able to mold with us and shape the program the way he wants it to be. We want to try and go undefeated in these last four games and have as much fun as we can."
Amaechi also said the Bulldogs can embrace the role of spoilers, given that Kentucky is looking to become bowl eligible this week and that next week's foe, Auburn, is No. 9 in the playoff rankings.
Smart was not interested earlier this week in using bowl eligibility as motivation for his team, citing a successful outing in Lexington as his primary objective. Whether that occurs and is accompanied by players having fun is to be determined.
"I really believe we're a better team than we've indicated, but we've got to go out and do that and show that and prove that," Smart said. "That's where we are with our group. That comes through your energy and enthusiasm as a coach on the field, and the leadership among the players helps with that as well."
Said sophomore receiver Michael Chigbu: "When you're playing with your brothers, it's always fun. With all the things that we've been through, with all the hard work and the dedication, you develop a love for one another, so it will always be fun, win or lose."
Georgia junior tight end Jeb Blazevich was named Thursday among the 11 semifinalists for the 2016 Wuerffel Trophy, which is given annually to a college football player with an exceptional history of community service. Former Georgia quarterback Aaron Murray was among the three finalists for the award in 2013, as was former Bulldogs receiver Chris Conley in 2014.
The three finalists for this year's Wuerfful Trophy will be announced Nov. 23.
Contact David Paschall at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-757-6524.