ATLANTA – The looks on the faces, as they entered the post-game interview session with the media Saturday night, told the entire story of Georgia’s gut-wrenching 35-28 loss to Alabama in an SEC Championship Game where the Bulldogs seemed in control most of the contest.
Georgia head coach Kirby Smart, star Bulldog sophomore quarterback Jake Fromm and senior defensive end Jonathan Ledbetter – to their credit – fielded each question but you could tell they would rather have been elsewhere, after seeing the top-ranked and now 13-0 Crimson Tide tally two touchdowns in the game’s final five-and-a-half minutes to pull the rug out from under the Bulldogs for the third time in their past three championship game meetings.
“Sick,” said Smart, describing his feelings about the devastating loss after Georgia had twice held two-touchdown leads on the Tide. “We’ve got to play better in the fourth quarter. That’s a big thing for us. We talked about it at halftime. We wanted to come out and be the more physical, dominant team and play the second half and win. We couldn’t close the deal. I don’t know what that is. We’re going to figure it out, though. I can promise you that,” said Smart. “We’re a few plays away. There were a lot of plays in that game. Everybody is going to point to whether it’s a field goal, whether it’s a fake punt, or whether it’s a breakdown on third down contain or fourth down contain and they score; a fumble. It’s so many things. It’s inches, and we didn’t get the inches tonight. We’ve got a damn good football team!” Smart exclaimed.
Indeed, the now 11-2 Bulldogs performed like a college playoff team in going tooth-and-nail with an Alabama team that had demolished all 12 of its opponents by 20 points or more this season.
“A lot of credit goes to Alabama,” said Smart. “They outperformed us in the second half. The game had a lot of momentum swings in it, up and down, up and down, back and forth, which we knew it would.
We’ve got a lot of champions on our teams. We’ve got a lot of kids that have the heart of a lion, these two
here (Fromm, Ledbetter) especially. They lead this team, they care about this university, and they play really hard.”
Smart, his voice rising with emotion, said he couldn’t be prouder of his young team that, remember, is comprised of 68 percent freshmen and sophomores this season.
“We told our kids that for a week they would hear nothing but how good Alabama was, and that’s what
they heard,” he said. “Everybody said they were unbeatable, and everybody talked about it. We knew what we had, and we knew we’ve got a good football team. We’ve got a really physical football team. We’ve got a talented football team. And we most definitely have one of the best four teams in the country.
“The system is what it is,” continued Smart. “What happens happens. These kids out here today, they battled tooth and nail with what is one of the best teams in the country. We did enough to win the game, and we didn’t finish it. Give Alabama credit. They made the plays when they had to. This is a special group.”
Of Georgia’s somewhat inexplicable fake punt on fourth down at midfield which resulted in Justin Fields gaining only two yards on the play and leading to Alabama’s final and clinching touchdown – a 15-yard run by Jalen Hurts with just 1:04 to play after Hurts relieved an injured Tua Tagovailoa – Smart said the Georgia staff simply thought the situation was there for the play to be successful … a play designed where Fields would pass for the first down.
“We actually carried it last year,” Smart said. “Thought it was there, and it was there today. We were going to snap the ball quick. We took too long to snap the ball. They didn’t have a guy covered. We had a guy wide open. We took so long to snap it, that they recognized it and got the guy covered late. It was probably 20, 30 yards’ field position that — we came to win the game. We wanted to win the game.
I talked to the guys before the game about it,” said Smart. “If we get an opportunity to run it, we’ll run it. It was there. We just didn’t get an opportunity to get it snapped before they covered the guy.”
Senior defensive end Ledbetter said the Bulldogs knew what Hurts was capable of when he came off the bench when Tagovailoa was injured with 11:15 left in the game and led the Tide on the two clutch scoring drives.
“We knew they had two mobile quarterbacks,” said Ledbetter. “They’re both mobile. We knew that going into the game. Our goal was to trap him (Hurts) and keep him in the pocket. We had a lot of guys rushing with a lot of passion and a lot of determination to get those guys on the ground. We did a good job with Tua. Then Jalen came in and surprised us a bit, a more mobile quarterback. Those are adjustments you’ve got to make in the game, and you’ve got be aware, have awareness in those situations. For the most part, I think our team did a good job keeping the quarterbacks in the pocket, knowing we had to make those plays in the small moments.”
Smart again reiterated the Bulldogs deserved to be in the top four teams that comprise this year’s national playoffs.
“Well, it boils down to one thing,” said Smart. “Do they want the best four teams in or not?” he asked. “It’s that simple. They (Alabama) sat at home last year and got to go in the game while everybody else is beating each other up, and they had a good football team. Give that coach (Nick Saban) across the sideline a vote who he doesn’t want to play. He’ll start with us. I promise you, you don’t want to play us. It’s not our decision. It’s their (selection committee) decision. But you’re going to put the four best football teams in.”
“I support my coach,” said Ledbetter. “We worked hard. We’re here. We showed up, and we played. They beat us in the end. You can’t say we didn’t go out there and fight. You can’t say we didn’t put it all on the line. You can’t say we’re not one of the best teams in college football. Just watch the tape. If they watch it, they should put us in.”
Fromm, who riddled the Alabama secondary for 301 yards on 25-of-39 completions and three touchdowns while tying an SEC Championship game record with 10 consecutive completions, was asked the same question about his team belonging in this year’s playoff field.
“I mean, really what these two guys have said, you know, it’s really not for me to decide,” Fromm replied. “That’s for them to decide. I thought we played our butts off today and we can only control what we can control.”
Alabama head coach Saban, while proud of his team’s valiant comeback and the performance Hurts had after relieving Tua in the final quarter, said the Bulldogs certainly deserve to make the four-team CFP.
“It was a great team win for us, and I think the other thing is people have to give Georgia credit,” said Saban. “They really played us better than anybody’s played us all year. We played in a game here with them we won 32-28 (in 2012 SEC title game), where we played Notre Dame in a national championship game and Georgia was the best team then. They were deserving to be in the championship game.
“And based on the teams that we’ve played this year,” Saban said, “I think this team (Bulldogs) deserves to be in the playoff as well. I sure as hell don’t want to play them again! And that’s the best compliment I can give you or give them. Their players did a fantastic job tonight.”