Expectations, passion, and perspective make strange bedfellows. Reasons can be dubbed excuses. When you win, they all look winnable, when you lose, they all seem losable.
Let’s go back to what proved to be the final home game of Mark Richt’s 15-year tenure as Georgia’s head football coach. The Bulldogs were quite fortunate to eek out a 23-17 overtime victory over Georgia Southern between the hedges. A couple of weeks later, following a 13-7 win at Tech, Kirby Smart was named the Bulldogs head coach. In his first game at Sanford Stadium as Georgia’s head coach, a week after an impressive win over North Carolina in the Chick-Fil-A Kickoff Classic in Atlanta, the Bulldogs escaped with a 26-24 win over Nicholls State. As a 50-point favorite.
Back-to-back home games. Blessings counted in the avoidance of embarrassment against Georgia Southern and Nicholls State.
At that point, even if told there would be immeasurable gridiron heartbreak in the biggest of games, and then another one that would hurt almost as bad, if Bulldog fans could have ‘struck a deal’ – ever see “Damn Yankees”? – everyone in Red and Black would have signed up for what has followed over the next three years.
Let’s check that.
After going Gator Bowl, Belk Bowl, Gator Bowl, Liberty Bowl, the Bulldogs have gone Rose Bowl, National Championship Game, Sugar Bowl, Sugar Bowl.
These last three regular seasons mark Georgia’s most exceptional back-to-back-to-back campaigns since the incredible early 80s when Georgia went 43-4-1 from 1980-83. The regular seasons of 1980-82 produced a cumulative mark of 32-1. Well, here in the 21st century in the 12-game regular season era, the Bulldogs have gone 11-1, 11-1 and 11-1. Yes, there is the extra regular-season game, plus Southeastern Conference Championship Games and the potential to play 14, or, in the dream season, 15 games. But this is the first time that Georgia has posted three consecutive 11-win seasons. And Georgia has done it in the regular season. Granted it’s now 12 games. But going 11-1 three straight years in the toughest league in the land is some serious high cotton.
En route to this excellence under Smart’s watch, Georgia has dominated its regular rivals – plus beaten Notre Dame twice. Over this stretch from 2017-2019, Georgia has gone 14-1 against Tech, Florida, Auburn, Tennessee, and the Fighting Irish. That lone loss came to Auburn in 2017, and Georgia would win the rematch to claim the Southeastern Conference championship, the program’s first since 2005.
You know the history, Georgia would then go on to the College Football Playoff, beat Oklahoma 54-48 in an epic Rose Bowl for the ages and then play for the national championship where you know who, with a lot of help from the zebras, just ripped the Bulldogs collective hearts out.
Damn domed stadiums. Dan Marino, Todd Blackledge, Amari Cooper, etc., etc., all the way up to Joe Burrow.
When you are playing for the highest of stakes, the losses hurt even more.
But Georgia, after being as close as close gets, has put itself in position the last two years, fighting for the SEC title and a berth in the ultimate final four of football, the CFP, which has been marketed and perceived by some as all that matters anymore. For the Bulldogs, these title tilts have been de facto National Quarterfinals, Elite Eight Games. Though the opposition was already in the last two years. Had the games not been played in 2018 and 2019, the SEC would have had two teams in the playoff.
Just like in 2017.
The SEC is far and away the toughest and most competitive league in college football. Making it to the SEC Championship Game means you have survived the grind and gauntlet. Making it three years in a row, well that is impressive company.
Smart and the Bulldogs are now in that elite company.
Steve Spurrier’s Gators went to the first five from 1992-1996. Gene Stallings led Alabama to the first three from 1992-1995. Nick Saban guided the Crimson Tide three in a row from 2014-2016.
All three of those coaches have national championships, and that is, of course, the ultimate dream of the Bulldogs. It’s been a long time, with some close calls, none closer than 1/8/18, since 1980. It should be pointed out that when Stallings led the Tide to the 1992 national title, it came in his 14th season as a head coach. He had previously been the head coach at Texas A&M (1965-1971) and the Cardinals of St. Louis and Arizona (1986-1989). When Spurrier’s Florida team of 1996 won the crown, it was in his seventh season at the Gators helm, and 13th overall as a head coach, following stints with the Tampa Bay Bandits (1983-85) of the USFL and Duke (1987-89). When Saban got Alabama rolling, he had already been the head coach of Michigan State, LSU, and the Miami Dolphins. His first national championship came at LSU in 2003, his 10th season as a head coach.
Smart is in his fourth.
Georgia coulda/shoulda won those two games against Bama in ‘17 and ‘18 and certainly should have beaten South Carolina this season. So close to a national championship, a second straight SEC title and playoff berth, and then who knows how this would have played out in 2019, a season in which Georgia was absolutely riddled by attrition and injury, at one position in particular?
We can wish, we can want, and of course, as Bulldogs, we can dream. Now we can do it realistically.