Not everything in sports goes the way we want it. That’s one of the reasons we watch sports. As Kirby Smart said before the Rose Bowl, “A lot of outcomes are dictated by how you handle what happens. Not necessarily what happens, but how you handle what happens.” And, more often than not, we on the periphery are left to manage our diminished expectations.
Just not this time.
The first national championship game in Atlanta will pair the Georgia Bulldogs, based 74 miles from Mercedes-Benz Stadium, with Alabama, which is based 205 miles away. Alabama has won half of the past eight national titles; Georgia hasn’t won one since Jan. 1, 1981. Georgia grew so envious of Alabama’s success that it fired the second-best coach in its history to hire Nick Saban’s aide-de-camp. The first meeting of teacher and pupil will end with one being handed a trophy.
As scripts go, that’s “A” material. But if you throw in what just happened, you’ve got the best screenplay since Robert Towne pecked out “Chinatown” on his old Olivetti. (Sorry. I’ve been in California so long that I’m speaking the lingo.) The glowering Saban was reduced to pleading for playoff inclusion after his Crimson Tide lost at Auburn, and their 24-6 dismissal of reigning champ Clemson – which had taken its title by beating Bama with a touchdown pass at 0:01 – was the most convincing performance authored by the nation’s best program in many a moon.
The Rose Bowl, staged just up the 101 from Hollywood, was the greatest game the playoff, now in Year 4, has produced. Georgia trailed by 17 points six seconds before halftime but, owing to a world-class gaffe by Oklahoma coach Lincoln Riley and his kicker, adjourned to the locker room feeling as if it had accomplished something. “We’re playing terrible,” Bulldogs coach Kirby Smart ranted at halftime, but from there on they would be the best team on this famous field by some distance.
Georgia’s first trip to the Rose Bowl – on Jan. 1, 1943 – was scoreless through three quarters and ended 9-0, the first two points coming after Red Boyd blocked Bob Waterfield’s punt for a safety. Times, as maybe you’ve noticed, have changed. Down 31-14, Georgia outscored the nation’s best offense 24-0, making the nation’s best offense look like Vanderbilt or Kentucky.
The Sooners and the mouthy Baker Mayfield scored on five of their first six possessions. After halftime, they would score on two of 10. An SEC team was dragged into a Big 12 game for a half – but only for a half. As the Georgia center Peter Anderson once said after the Bulldogs beat Florida, “Order was restored to nature.”
Somehow Alabama opened as a four-point favorite over Georgia, the thinking presumably being that the Bulldogs won’t muster much against that mighty Tide defense. But didn’t Smart, not so long ago, coach that defense? Who knows more about it than he? And doesn’t Georgia play defense, too? And didn’t Alabama lose a fairly big game to Auburn, the same Auburn that would subsequently lose twice – first by 21 points to Georgia, then to Central Florida – in Mercedes-Benz? (Has a sunny season ever ended worse than for the men of Malzahn?)
I’ve said it before. Here it is again: Georgia should have no fear of Alabama because Georgia essentially is Alabama. The Sooners of Riley and Mayfield were, for both better and worse, a whirlwind, and you can never tell how those are going to blow. (In this instance, Oklahoma went from blowing Georgia out to blowing a big fat lead.) With Bama, the Bulldogs of scion-of-Saban Kirby Smart will know exactly what’s coming
We knew Georgia was a darn good team before the Rose Bowl. We now know they’re more than that. Smart afterward: “Our kids are so resilient. They never stopped chopping wood. They kept fighting. They believed. There were offensive players affecting defensive players in the locker room at halftime, and they kept fighting. We didn't play the way we were capable, but the best news is we get a chance to play again.”
For us Atlantans, the best news is that we get the best of all possible title tilts. The rest of the nation already is in cringe mode at the thought of two teams from the boring SEC playing for the championship – when last this happened, Alabama scored one touchdown to LSU’s none – but we don’t live in Ohio or Oregon or Oxnard, Calif. We live in the nation’s capital city of college football, and when you say college football, you pretty much mean Alabama and the SEC. And now, once again, you mean the Georgia Bulldogs.
“If it was a measure of a heart attack,” Smart said Monday night, “I’d be on the Richter scale pretty high.” That’s the way everybody watching felt, but there was – at least once the defense started tackling somebody – a serenity about the Bulldogs. They’d played terribly but fought their way back from the brink. They could again hand the ball to Nick Chubb and Sony Michel and let them do the voodoo that they do so well. They could trust the freshman Jake Fromm to throw the ball to the right team. They could trust Lorenzo Carter to lend, speaking literally, a big hand.
They won because they wouldn’t lose, but not just that. They kept chopping, yes, but they’ve also proved to be skilled woodsmen. They’re in Atlanta’s championship game – and they’re 2-0 in Atlanta since Thanksgiving – on merit. They will be national champions on merit.