Photo Credit: Lauren Tolbert/UGA Athletics
Richard LeCounte’s first-quarter interception gave Georgia fans hope.
Call it deja vu or a sense of impending doom. Georgia led Alabama for the vast majority of the game—making them one of only two teams to lead Alabama at any point this season—but it never felt like the Dawgs were actually winning the game. It felt like the result could be different, should be different, from the 26-23 overtime loss in the National Championship Game last season, based on how we played this time around compared to then, but there was a palpable sense that everything was about to come crashing down.
And it did. This time, backup quarterback Jalen Hurts came in for Tua Tagovailoa in a role reversal from last season, but the end result was the same. Only instead of Alabama capping off their comeback by shanking a field goal and extending our hope/anguish into an overtime period, they just stomped on our neck in regulation. Hurts scrambled for a 15-yard touchdown to take the lead, and a token heave to the end zone from Jake Fromm fell short. Georgia lost 35-28, lost the SEC Championship and lost a spot in the College Football Playoff. It really, really sucked.
Make no mistake, though, Georgia was outstanding in this game. Jake Fromm was 25-39 for 301 yards and three touchdowns in the best game of his career. The defense flew to the ball, creating two interceptions and six tackles for loss, and keeping the Alabama offense on its toes for most of the game. Just as importantly, through some combination of pressure and injury, Tagovailoa, the presumptive Heisman winner before Saturday, was dreadful. Everything went Georgia's way for most of the game [Editor's note: Except the officiating.] and it still didn't matter.
We've lost our last four meetings with the Tide, and three of those were lost on the final play of the game. Based on the current state of the SEC, these championship contests between the Dawgs and the Tide will be an annual occurrence for the foreseeable future. And until Nick Saban steps down, Alabama won't either. Alabama is both a perpetual road and measuring stick for Georgia and, like it or not, it seems God has deemed fit that Georgia must slay its crimson dragon before winning another national title.
So what will it take to beat Alabama? Perfection.
All it took was a few small mistakes for all the hard work to come undone this year, and they're easy to identify: The busted coverage on Hurt's 23-yard pass to Jaylen Waddle on Bama's game-tying drive. The failed fake punt attempt with the game tied in the fourth quarter onGeorgia's next drive. The inability to wrangle Hurts on his game-winning scramble, or any of his scrambles before it, for that matter. If not for those mistakes and only a few more like them throughout the course of four quarters, we're SEC champions and getting ready for the playoff right now. But unless you play a flawless game against the Tide, you won't beat them.
In a greater sense, the lack of perfection is also why we failed to make the playoff field and will instead play Texas in the Sugar Bowl. (A fantastic consolation prize, I might add.) If we had beaten LSU, we would've entered championship weekend with our CFP spot locked up, just as Bama did. It sucks, but even when we know we're one of the four best teams in the country, nothing can be left to chance, because there's a possibility of facing—and losing to—Alabama in the SEC Championship Game while other playoff contenders teams get to play Pitt or not play at all. Until we prove we can beat Alabama, a perfect regular season will be our clearest path to the playoff.
Perfection takes time. It took Saban three seasons to win his first national championship at Alabama. Smart hasn't won his title yet, but like Saban, in three years he's turned his program into one of the best teams in the country and perennial title contenders. (As much as some fans may hate comparisons between Georgia and Alabama, Smart and Saban, losses like these will only highlight and propagate them.) And, like Saban, there's a good chance his teams will continue to get better and better. That will certainly be true for next season, when Georgia will return 17 of 22 starters, plus a slew underclassman contributors and any stud recruits Smart signs in this class.
Talent-wise, this year’s team will be the worst Georgia will be for some years to come. It was a rebuilding season, which should scare the hell out of the rest of college football, especially Alabama. Saban said before the game that Georgia is the best team they've faced this year, and admitted after the game he doesn't want to play the Dawgs again. Because he knows, even if it didn't happen last year, even if it didn't happen this year, Kirby has his number. And Alabama fans know, deep down in the bottom of their souls, they didn't beat Georgia—they escaped Georgia.