Han Vance on Georgia football: Sadly, the Bulldogs ripped defeat from the jaws of near victory. The team actually showing better apparent on-field talent fought hard and lost the huge game in Atlanta.
As I publicly predicted, outgoing defensive coordinator Mel Tucker’s defense got to potential Heisman winner Tua Tagovailoa and physically hurt him, while Georgia’s stellar sophomore Jake Fromm was by far the better quarterback. The SEC championship repeat still got away Saturday.
Outside of interior defensive lineman Quinnen Williams, no Alabama regular appeared stronger to me than the deep, gifted Dawgs. And Georgia has clearly improved in talent and depth with the past two recruiting classes, ranked #3 and #1 nationally. The early signing period is 12/19-12/21.
The Tide’s Jalen Hurts came on in relief and won, while Bama’s defense inevitably stiffened some after giving up nearly 30 points, after winning by 20+ all year. If they prove to be the best team in the country, Georgia must be the second best. In the end of SEC action, Dogs got out-coached at the top.
Georgia had the single youngest team in the SEC this season but played with a maturity belying their collective youth. Strong game plans for both the offense and defense were implemented in building leads in: the first quarter, at the half, at the end of the third quarter.
The momentum finally turned when usually great kicker Rodrigo Blankenship missed a chip shot field goal that would have pushed the Georgia score to 31. Somehow, Georgia never recovered.
Finally, Kirby Smart choked. That is the nicest way it can be said. When the Tide tied the game at 28 late in the 4th quarter and forced Georgia into a 4th and 11, Kirby panicked.
Inexplicably, in no way trusting his defense, the cornerstone of his background as both a player and an assistant coach, he inserted the irrelevant-this-season freshman quarterback Justin Fields, a very obviously unusual substitution which caused Bama to stay in a base defense instead of normal punt coverage. Calling a timeout to rethink what was the worst coaching decision I have ever seen in my life was nixed, as he stuck with his guns. Fields was stuffed, easily. Again, it was 4th and 11, near midfield. Harken back to another lousy fake at LSU.
The long-beleaguered scrambler Hurts got the ball back and drove the rest of the way down the field, gifted field position. Any number of stellar college teams could have done so from there, and the clock was all but killed.
Fromm and the guys on offense fought on gallantly, without enough time to be comfortable on a night they had played well. A key would-be first down went off the hands of Mecole Hardman Jr. As I have routinely had to point out, the athletic speedster has struggled with catches and concentration his whole career. He had dropped another earlier easy should-be first-half touchdown, as well as muffing a return. Hope he improves there, especially if he continues as a starting wide receiver.
While a clear Bama pass interference went uncalled near the end zone on the third to final play, before Georgia converted a final first down. A Hail Mary prayer went unanswered.
Just like last year, the refs were never the key issue, fans. It’s the obvious mental inability to, ahem, finish the drill. Georgia has lost several times similarly on big stages since the 1980 national championship. No need to recap them.
Kirby does have an unusually small pool of experience in head coaching in close games after three years, and as example, this was the first close game of this season for his team. After starting his head coaching career with three close wins in 2016, Kirby fell to just 4-5 in such one-score games since. As I pointed out last winter while reporting from Athens on national signing day, Georgia needs to establish a fearless mentality that wins close games when they come. Like Bama.
Georgia projects to the Sugar Bowl, just outside the CFP, which is exactly where I projected them in the offseason. My hopeful goal for the team – after losing so much upperclassmen talent – was to find a way to repeat as SEC champions. But another game to mighty Alabama slipped away, and Nick Saban has still never lost to any of his former assistant coaches.
By the way, all along I had Georgia winning it all…next year.