Memo to Kirby Smart: Next time, win the game.
Oh, and next time? Bag the fake kicks.
For 16 hours, we heard some voices – Smart’s being the loudest – insist that Georgia was among the nation’s four best teams. This came after a come-from-ahead loss to Alabama. Yes, Bama is great. That said, the Bulldogs had positioned themselves to beat Bama (again). They didn’t (again).
They were outscored 21-0 by a team that lost its No. 1 quarterback in mid-rally. They were undone by their coach, whose unpunted punt will live forever in football infamy. They coulda/shoulda won. They lost.
They lost, it must be said, in a year unlike any of the five-year annals of the College Football Playoff. Four teams finished undefeated. Two others wound up as one-loss champions of Power 5 leagues. The Bulldogs were not among that number. To have cracked this field of four, they’d have had to do better than be a two-loss non-champ. That they finished No. 5 – ahead of Big Ten titlist Ohio State and unbeaten-yet-again UCF – tells us how close they came, which is pretty much the recent history of Georgia football. Close, but not quite.
Of the four teams that made the playoff, only No. 4 Oklahoma lost to anybody. The Sooners fell to Texas on a late field goal in October. In the Big 12 title tilt, they beat the Longhorns by 12. The data point largely unmentioned over Saturday night into Sunday morning was this: Georgia lost 36-16 to LSU, the first good team it played. The Bulldogs then lost to Alabama. They had twice as many losses as the entire CFP field. Should one intrepid (but also losing) performance override an otherwise fair-to-middling body of work?
The answer is no, and it should be no. Otherwise there’s no reason for the committee to meet six times in Grapevine, Texas. You can’t just say, “Oh, those guys looked awfully good the last time we saw them” and issue an invite. (How good did Georgia look that Saturday in Baton Rouge?) The season must mean something. Do I think the Bulldogs could beat Notre Dame or Oklahoma on a neutral field? Given that they almost beat Bama, sure they could. But they didn’t beat Bama, and they didn’t beat LSU. Win either of those two and they’re in. They lost both. Ergo, they’re out.
Here we emphasize that this is in no way an indictment of the year Georgia just had. It went 11-2 and won the SEC East. It was, more or less, the team we expected – not as strong as last year’s almost-national-champs but a worthy bridge to what should be even brighter tomorrows. It will be a while before this program loses another game. (The Bulldogs should handle Texas in the Sugar Bowl, their not-awful consolation destination.)
They and Alabama and Clemson will surely be Nos. 1, 2 and 3 in next season’s preseason polls. It’s hard to imagine the 2019 SEC championship being anything but another round of Bama-UGA, and surely Georgia can’t lose the same game the same way every single time from here to eternity. (Well, can it?)
That Georgia nearly ran Alabama off the field is a credit to Smart and his coaches. Their first half was a clinic. The unraveling was a case study in overthink. D’Andre Swift rushed only three times in the final two quarters: Why?
Much worse: Smart and Co. came into the game looking for a chance to run their fake punt – freshman backup quarterback Justin Fields throwing to D’Andre Swift – and thought they’d found it with three minutes left in a tie game that would determine their postseason itinerary. When it fizzled, Smart offered the rationale he’d offered at LSU, when a failed gambit that wound up with kicker Rodrigo Blankenship trying to run greased what would become a boat-race loss. “It was there,” Smart said Saturday night. (Er, It was there until the opponent took it away.)
Smart is, we stipulate, a smart guy. In three years, he has taken Georgia to a place that Georgian fans weren’t sure they’d see again. His program is already moving from strength to strength, and his strongest batches of Bulldogs should be ahead. But when you have a team this good, you don’t need to outflank people.
You don’t need to dare on fourth-and-11 if failure means handing Jalen Hurts – now a backup who hadn’t presided over a meaningful drive until Saturday and never the greatest passer – a short field. You punt and make Bama travel 40 yards to pull within range of a field goal it might miss anyway. You don’t allow Hurts to make one throw to his tight end and essentially carry the day.
For the Bulldogs, that made Saturday’s loss more galling than gallant. They aided and abetted Alabama, a team that needs little help. For Georgia, a moment almost seized became an opportunity muffed. Smart is a youngish head coach – he’s 42 – and will learn from this. But he’ll never forget it because he’ll never be allowed to forget it.
His team came close to shocking the world and crashing the playoff. Alas, that’s still Georgia. Close, but not quite.