January 9, 2018

Monday's Game Was the Beginning, Not the End

Flag Football

Photo Credit: Steffenie Burns

The two things I've come to associate with Georgia-Alabama games are rain and heartbreak. We got both Monday.

In the oft-quoted words of Georgia great Lewis Grizzard—words that have never rang truer than right now—"Frankly, I don't want to talk about it." And I won't, at least not much. Georgia lost the National Championship Game 26-23 to Alabama in overtime. The Dawgs never trailed until Bama's walkoff touchdown.

If I had the inclination, I could go blow-by-blow over all the things that cost Georgia the national championship, including a handful of atrocious calls by the refs that had the potential to change the game. But those wounds are too raw for the moment, and picking at them would send me back into the pit of despair that I climbed out of after a sleepless night spend asking "How?" and "Why?"

Instead, I'm going to look at the positives. Because even though it might not feel like it right now, in the wake of the greatest heartbreak in Georgia sports history, this was a great year for Georgia football. Arguably the program's greatest. And even though I want to cry and self-flagellate and wallow in my misery, I'm going to force myself to see silver linings, because this is a team we should all be proud of, and one that deserves to be remembered.

The regular season has sort of gone down the memory hole because of the excitement and potential that comes with a national championship game. But forget about that for a moment and remember who we beat at what we won. We brought 40,000 Dawg fans to South Bend, IN and beat Notre Dame. We shut out Tennessee. We laid a licking on Florida like the Gators haven't experienced in years, and got their coach fired. We put Georgia Tech back in its place. We avenged a loss to Auburn by beating the Tigers soundly in the SEC Championship Game. By the way, we won the SEC Championship. We beat the Heisman Trophy winner and the best offense in college football in the dang Rose Bowl. This was the kind of season that only happens every few decades, if that. Don't let the loss to Bama ruin your memory of this campaign. It was the most fun I've ever had watching Georgia football.

Kirby Smart is a fantastic coach. You can quibble with some decisions he makes, as you can do with any coach, but this season erased any doubts I had that he is the right man for the job. Smart can gameplan, motivate and make kids better through coaching. We already knew he could recruit, but he's proved to be even better at that than we once thought. If you thought Smart would have been on the verge of a creating a dynasty had Georgia found a way to scrape out of victory, nothing that happened in that game should change your mind.

This senior class is my favorite ever. Nick Chubb and Sony Michel deserve to be recognized as two of the best players in program history, because they are. You wouldn't hear me complain if another Dawg never wore No. 1 or 27 ever again. Lorenzo Carter and Davin Bellamy brought fantastic leadership to the defense and brought a toughness and swagger to that unit that I haven't seen in more than a decade. Then there's Roquan Smith, a junior. He may be the best Georgia defender ever, and if he comes back for another season he'll prove it. Both those I did and did not mention are Damn Good Dawgs, one and all.

The youngsters on this team are sensational and still have a chance to achieve things no other Georgia team has. I will admit I was a Jake Fromm detractor for much of his freshman year, but I am fully converted. With a little more seasoning, he can be one of the best QBs in college football. D'Andre Swift is a worthy heir to Chubb and Michel's throne. Offensive linemen such as Andrew Thomas and Ben Cleveland can be a cornerstone of that unit for years to come. Between those guys and a slew of other talented freshmen and sophomores, Georgia shouldn't lose a step as it moves ahead.

But the one silver lining I keep returning to, the greatest ray of hope, is that most great college football teams have The Year Before The Year. Clemson went 14-1 and made the National Championship Game in 2015 before winning the title in 2016. Ohio State went 12-2 in 2013—Urban Meyer's second season—then won it all in 2014. FSU went 10-2 in 2012 before winning it all in 2013. Even Saban went through this. He went 7-6 his first year in Tuscaloosa, 12-2 in his second, and won the National Championship at 14-0 in his third. That progression seems familiar…

A loss like the one Georgia suffered can galvanize a program. Now all those guys know how good it feels to reach that stage and how horrible it feels to lose once you arrive. That's motivation, perhaps the best motivation you can have, to put in the work so you can get back again and get a different outcome. Just like us, those players are in a world of hurt right now. But unlike us, they have the ability to do something about it.

I'm not ready to call a Georgia national title in 2018 yet. But these 2017 Georgia Bulldogs showed more character and mental toughness than any team since I started cheering on the Dawgs. If it turns out those are traits exemplified by the program under Smart, and not just this team, I have no doubt that we'll be right back where we were Monday night again soon, and next time we'll know what it takes slay our demons.

This ain't an end. It's a beginning.