Arts & CultureFlag Football

Kirby Smart and Georgia Have Something to Prove in the Sugar Bowl

I remember a phrase Dawg fans used to celebrate their triumphant return to New Orleans in 2002 when Georgia went to the Sugar Bowl for the first time in 20 years: “You can’t spell ‘sugar’ without ‘UGA.’”

After Georgia defeated Florida State in that game, I remember it showing up on a lot of T-shirts, too. The phrase made a return ahead of the 2006 Sugar Bowl, which was played in Atlanta following Hurricane Katrina, although I saw fewer shirts after the Dawgs lost to West Virginia. But the saying popped back up in 2008 when Georgia beat Hawaii in New Orleans.

Georgia fans have always loved the Sugar Bowl. For decades, the top team in the SEC earned a berth in the Sugar Bowl, so a trip to NOLA meant you were the best in the conference. Hell, we won our last national championship in the Sugar Bowl. And we still love the Sugar Bowl, right?

It doesn’t seem that way. Georgia is back in the Sugar Bowl for the second time in as many years, playing No. 7 Baylor this time around. And for the second time in as many years, no one seems excited about it. Just look at the ticket prices. Considering the state of college football, and the state of Georgia football, that old saying feels more like an insult than a brag.

The College Football Playoff reigns supreme. If your program is considered among the elite of the sport, anything less than being one of those four teams feels like a failure. And for the second year running, Georgia ain’t one of those teams. finishing just outside the top four. For most of Georgia football history, any number of fans would have traded a finger for a trip to the Sugar Bowl. Now, it feels like a consolation prize, as well as a reminder that we fell short—again.

Kirby Smart’s challenge this year is effectively the same as it was last year: Get the players excited and prepared for a game that essentially doesn’t matter. He failed last season, losing to Texas. But there is one major difference between this year and last year: This year, Kirby still has something to prove.

Last year, we knew how good that team was. Despite all the nits that we picked during the 2018 season, what we had was essentially a playoff-caliber team, one that could have made a run for the title had a few bounces—or fake punts—gone our way in the SEC Championship Game loss to Alabama. A handful of our best players were injured or sitting out to prepare for the NFL draft. We lost, and no one cared, because it meant nothing.

This year, we’ve spent months watching a dull, ineffective offense. And even though we came up just one game short of a trip to the CFP, most honest fans would admit that this team would probably get slaughtered by Clemson or Ohio State the same way it got slaughtered by LSU. 

But because of those failures on offense, Kirby has a chance to end the season on a positive note. To do that, he has to win the Sugar Bowl and score a lot of points in the process. After all the hubbub about the offense following the SEC Championship Game, Kirby can silence a lot of critics heading into the offseason if he opens up the playbook and the players execute. The Sugar Bowl may mean nothing now, but it also means a whole lot.

To be fair, Kirby and offensive coordinator James Coley tried to open the offense against LSU, but, like all season, the routes were often far too predictable, and there wasn’t any cohesion between the receivers and Jake Fromm. So, as much as I want to see inventive play-calling, I also want to see better execution from the players, specifically Fromm.

With nothing on the line, if the offense continues to play conservatively, it’s probably a good indicator that Kirby doesn’t see a need to change his “manball” approach. If he continues with an offense that has proven to be ineffective with three weeks to prepare and no stakes, it’s a sign that doesn’t bode well for potential changes to the offense in the offseason.