December 19, 2018

It May Not Be the Playoffs, but the Sugar Bowl Ain't Bad

Flag Football

Photo Credit: Cory A. Cole / UGA Athletics

The average fan’s face when he heard Georgia was going to the Sugar Bowl.

Here are some facts about the 2018 Georgia football team: It won 11 games this season for only the 11th time in the program's 115-year history. It is one of the highest-scoring teams in program history, averaging 38.7 points per game. It will play in Georgia's 10th Sugar Bowl, the program's first in a decade, and face a historically great power program, Texas, that Georgia hasn't faced in 34 years.

Now, here are some feelings about the 2018 Georgia football team: It would be a national title favorite right now if not for an inexplicably poor performance against LSU and/or (another) late collapse against Alabama, this time in the SEC Championship Game. Its Sugar Bowl performance won't matter, because it's a consolation prize. It will be remembered as a major disappointment in the minds of many fans.

It's difficult to reckon these feelings with those facts. By any objective measure you can find—record, S&P+, FPI, final ranking—this is one of the best teams in UGA football history. But, subjectively, there was always something that felt a little off about this team. The Dawgs dominated every game this season aside from the two they lost—and even the Alabama game featured large spells of UGA dominance—but only appeared to be playing up to their full potential on a few occasions. That failure to play perfectly in every game not only cost them a spot in the College Football Playoff, it also cost them the confidence of fans who had raised their expectations in the wake of a 2017 season that was nearly perfect.

It's fascinating what expectations can do to you. If I had told you when Kirby Smart was hired that in three years Georgia would be back in the Sugar Bowl playing Texas with an SEC East title and 11-2 record in hand—without telling you that in between Georgia had won the SEC Championship and a Rose Bowl, appeared in the National Championship Game and recruited better than any program in the country—you'd have done somersaults. But now, after seeing what we've seen, many of you are angry we're playing in the damn Sugar Bowl, because it isn't the playoffs.

That's the tyranny of expectations at work. We've come to expect so much from Georgia football that great is no longer good enough. Those expectations changed what should have been one of the most exciting seasons in a long time into a fairly droll affair with fans, including me, waving off multi-touchdown victories over major rivals as matters of course. It's an understandable and not unexpected development for a program with Georgia's goals and competing at Georgia's level, but it still sucks when we can't appreciate obvious greatness because we know it could've been just a little better.

The ghost of 2017 lingered over everything this team did, which is understandable—the 2017 season was maybe the best season in program history, despite the failure to capture the national title. The team was also slightly better in subtle ways and eminently more likable because of longtime fan favorites such as Nick Chubb, Sony Michel and Roquan Smith. And it was a surprise, which is always more fun. Coming off an 8-5 record the year before, we looked up one day and—BAM! Georgia's good again. It felt like validation that we weren't crazy, and that this program was a sleeping giant that just needed to be kicked awake.

Many fans expected that same feeling in 2018, but you only get to be surprised once. We'll never get the feeling of that 2017 season again, and that's probably a good thing. It was the feeling of returning to the mountaintop after years away—a feeling that can only be recaptured if we head back to the bottom. I don't plan on Georgia football heading to the bottom again anytime soon.

There needs to be a recalibration of expectations within the Georgia fanbase if we want to enjoy much of the greatness of this program that's still to come. We aren't going to win the national championship every year—or maybe ever. But that doesn't mean we shouldn't have fun watching Georgia beat the hell out of rivals or playing in big bowl games. I mean, if you can't get excited about playing Texas in the Sugar Bowl, why even be a fan in the first place?

There's only four full months of college football a year, and I don't want to spend another season like an entitled brat bellyaching that great ain't perfect. So, if you'll excuse me, I've got a Sugar Bowl to look forward to.