So much of this season is about checking off boxes for the Bulldogs. It’s a to-do list of things that have plagued Georgia since being on the cusp of a Southeastern Conference championship and shot at the national title five years ago. These are the things that led to a change.
Second-year Bulldogs coach Kirby Smart tasted a dose of it in his first season – the offense line, losing as a favorite, the struggles in Sanford Stadium, the kicking game, blowing fourth-quarter leads, and that bitter, awful taste of defeat to the fiercest of rivals. Sometimes it takes a step backwards to go forward, the next step in the pursuit of greatness.
Georgia fans are witnessing the building, the assembling of a program with enormous potential. Smart is passionate and driven to make his alma mater’s football program the very best.
To quote distinguished Georgia letterman, starting rover back and one of the heroes of the national championship season of 1980 Chris Welton: “Kirby’s strength is his authenticity.”
The excitement that has been generated, how it has translated into recruiting and player development, the Georgia people share that optimism that it will soon again be the Bulldogs time. The future is bright.
But the present has a chance to be top shelf.
A win over Tennessee would be a major move towards the Bulldogs top two goals of 2017, win the SEC East and beat Tech.
A win over Tennessee would also check off a lot of boxes. Through the years, Georgia hasn’t frequently blown big leads.
But the last two seasons, Georgia most certainly has, including a pair to Tennessee, a school that, since the Bulldogs and Volunteers became permanent opponents with the expansion and switching to a divisional format in 1992, has joined the long list of big rivals. Especially to a younger generation that has only known playing Tennessee annually. Especially to every Bulldog, who had to endure a nine-year losing streak to the Volunteers from 1989-1999 (the two did not play in 1990 and 1991).
The tide would turn for the Bulldogs against the Volunteers and from 2000-2005, Georgia went 5-1 against Tennessee, with the loss a crusher as a heavy favorite in 2004. Tennessee then won three of the next four, annihilating the Bulldogs at Neyland Stadium in 2007 and 2009.
Things then turned back the way of the red and black.
From 2010-2014, the Bulldogs won five straight against the Volunteers, which drew the all-time series into a dead heat at 21-21-2. That seemed a far cry from realistic possibility during Tennessee’s domination of the 1990s. Over the last three years of that stretch, Georgia had the clearly superior talent but had to eek out victories of seven, three and three points. Wins all the same, but a lot more gas than necessary came out of the tank.
Back to the boxes for Smart’s Dogs of 2017 to check off.
Big rival, 50/50 game, big lead, Sanford Stadium … See Georgia vs. Tennessee 2015 and 2016.
Two years ago, standout tailback Nick Chubb, who was having a Heisman Trophy-caliber start to the season was lost for the year with a horrific knee injury. Georgia seized control of the game and led 24-3 late in the first half. But Tennessee hit a big fourth down and scored, then took advantage of a fumble and scored again, and just like that it was 24-17 at intermission.
When the second half rolled around, the Volunteers were scoring touchdowns with greater ease than the Bulldogs were getting first downs. Georgia would strike once more, but a dropped would-be TD was haunting and a 24-3 lead turned into a 38-31 loss with the pall of Chubb’s injury.
Last season in Athens, the Dogs led 17-0 late in the first half. Tennessee converted a fourth down. The Vols got a touchdown, though clearly their quarterback Joshua Dobbs didn’t score on the play. And you know the rest.
It was 24-14 Georgia. Then it was 24-21 Georgia when Tennessee forced and recovered a fumble in the end zone to take the lead. Jacob Eason to Riley Ridley. The 15-yard penalty. Alvin Kamara’s fine return, plus another five for offsides. Hail Mary. Paydirt Tennessee. Hands in the face, utter dejection for Georgia.
A second straight year, a second straight agonizing loss to the Volunteers. Up 21, loss. Up 17, loss.
There is only one way to get past that, start winning such games. Then, the winning becomes contagious and expected.
Football schedules are literally stepping stones. Accomplishing the goals game by game and week by week leads to accomplishing the major directives set forth before the year begins.
Beating a big rival and taking another step towards exorcising those demons of the last two years would get Georgia past another stone on the road to Atlanta and the SEC Championship Game while checking off a couple of boxes – at least – on the Bulldogs required script-flipping.
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