Georgia had enough talent to win more games in 2016, but the Bulldogs didn’t possess the firepower to overcome the number of self-inflicted wounds and some bad breaks that afflicted the team in a 7-5 regular season. The term – and this goes for almost anything in life where there’s competition – is margin for error. Georgia didn’t have enough this season. But first-year Coach Kirby Smart and his staff are in relentless pursuit of elite talent with the highest of goals and grandest of dreams in mind. The standard bearer is Alabama, where Smart served as Nick Saban’s defensive chief from 2007-2015, and not just the numerous championships the Crimson Tide have captured. Yes, those are the dreams of the Bulldogs and so many other schools. But what Bama has, through overwhelming talent, player development, discipline, moxie and smarts is margin for error – they can overcome their miscues, and they don’t make very many.
This season at Sanford Stadium was some cruel, darkly comic, Greek tragedy with a trio of head-spinning losses by three, one and one that left everyone in red and black stunned, shattered and agog in disbelief. There were some mighty long walks up Baxter and Lumpkin Hills.
There’s no reason to go into the details, if you love Georgia and follow college football, you are well aware. As the late, great Lewis Grizzard penned following a particularly painful loss to the most bitter of enemies, “Frankly, I don’t want to talk about it.”
When the Coaches All-Southeastern Conference first and second teams were announced, there were no Bulldogs on either. That’s not the stuff of champions.
Measuring talent and the depth of the roster, Smart’s predecessor Mark Richt inherited a gold mine, beach house and Italian sports cars from Jim Donnan. Smart inherited a pretty nice house, but it’s a fixer- upper – plumbing, flooring and fresh coats of paint a must.
Amongst his many outstanding qualities, one of Smart’s strongest attributes, of which Georgia was and is in such dire need of, is recruiting and assembling talent.
Smart and his staff did a fine job keeping together most of the class of 2016, while adding some other good talent. The class of 2017 is projected to be ranked potentially as high as No. 3 nationally, the excitement of the energetic young coach with football and a love for Georgia flowing through his veins proving a rich enticement for prep prospects buying in and believing in the incredible potential of the program.
Those three brutal losses between the hedges hurt, but to arrive at the mountaintop, often a journey through the valley is required. The hard and painful days are seeking “never again” lessons that can, one day, fuel a rise to glory.
Many of the issues that plagued the Bulldogs this season are the same ones that have hurt in years past, which is not unusual when a coaching transition is made. In Georgia’s case, the offensive line, a far too common source of angst in the Richt era, was a patchwork group starting a guard and Rhode Island transfer at the two tackle spots. Sam Pittman is an outstanding offensive line coach, and there was definitely progress in the final month of the season. But the eyes towards the future are bright, with a star-studded crop of offensive linemen, with more to come, verbally committed to sign in February. Still, though, the offensive line will be a work in progress next season.
Special teams Is another area that cost Georgia way too much in the 21st century, and kicking game breakdowns – though the unit improved as the season went along – were culpable in all three of those gut-wrenching home losses. There were costly dropped passes and untimely penalties. And in all three of those Sanford Stadium setbacks, the Bulldogs were burned by not putting the other team away. It comes back to margin for error, a.k.a. having talent that is competitive (especially along a young defensive front seven and at tailback) but not overwhelming, which gets back to the top priority for Smart and his staff, rebuilding the depth of talent and pushing the Bulldogs to a national championship level.
With the talent in this state, there’s no reason the Bulldogs can’t. It won’t happen overnight, but Georgia is on its way.
In the end, when the chips are down, the players have to make the plays. That’s how games are won. These brutal, painful losses, there’s one way to get past those – start winning the tight games. Do that, and that hatred of losing that is festering now, combined with learning how to win as a roster goes in talent, that’s a path to greatness.
There was a term for Clemson, now in the College Football Playoff for a second straight season called “Clemson-ing.” Essentially, the Tigers would be on the way towards an outstanding season and would then get knocked off track by a middle or lower pack Atlantic Coast Conference foe like N.C. State, Maryland or Wake Forest.
Well, Clemson got over that. The Tigers started winning those games. When they did that, Clemson, starting with the 2012 Chick- Fil-A Peach Bowl, beat LSU, Georgia, Auburn, Florida State, finally Steve Spurrier’s South Carolina Gamecocks, and won three more bowls over Oklahoma, Ohio State and the Sooners again to reach the national title game.
If Clemson can do it, if Auburn, which Georgia has beaten nine of the last 11 years, can play for a pair of national titles in a four-year period, then the Bulldogs can damn well do it.
Clemson’s great quarterback and left tackle are Georgia natives, as is Ohio State’s best defender, and Auburn’s two best offensive linemen. The Bulldogs frankly weren’t in the hunt for any of the five.
Granted, you’re not going to get them all, but Georgia should get more than its fair share, and at least be in the conversation with the ones that get away. That’s happening right now.
Hearing that dreaded seven-letter “P” word Saban used to coin his building of Alabama might cause some groans, but there’s a blueprint for what Smart is doing in Athens. The goal, making the dreams of the Georgia people come true. It won’t be easy, and there will be some bumps in the road. No shortcuts are being taken.
Next season, depending on what Sony Michel and Nick Chubb decide to do, and with an offensive line that will be a work in progress, will likely feature seven or eight or more knee-knockers, just like this season. Maybe Georgia will win most or all of those. But the year after that, and the year after that, then we should see the Bulldogs knocking on the door of greatness.