You could feel this coming. This game meant far more to Texas, a proud program that hadn’t had a signature bowl victory in nearly a decade, than to Georgia, which had played in five bigger games over the past 13 months. The Sugar Bowl was a Program game for the Longhorns; for the Bulldogs, it was a place they’d rather not have been.
It showed from the first. Texas took the opening kickoff and rolled to a touchdown. Georgia took the ensuing kickoff and started messing up. Punter Jake Camarda, bending to gather a low snap, bent so far his left knee touched the ground, giving Texas possession at the Bulldogs’ 27. Camarda’s next punt covered 11 yards. (Maybe faking that punt against Alabama wasn’t such a bad idea, huh?)
D’Andre Swift fumbled the ball away. (He would fumble again later.) Seven seconds into the second quarter, the team favored by 13 points trailed 17-0. The Bulldogs, who spent much of the past month averring that they belonged in the College Football Playoff, were being run off the field by a team that lost to Maryland.
With 11:49 left, the team that led Alabama 28-14 a month ago trailed a four-loss team from the no-defense Big 12 by 21 points. Amid all the blather about the playoff and Justin Fields possibly transferring and Deandre Baker saving himself for the NFL, Georgia had forgotten it had a game to play. That game would end 28-21, the score flattering the losers.
As much as Kirby Smart sought to warn his players, the message obviously didn’t transmit. Human nature, we say again, is one tough opponent. By the time Georgia realized it was in a game, that game was all but gone. Some will see this loss as proof that the Bulldogs didn’t belong in the playoff, but there’s no way they’d have been this addled if this had been a semifinal.
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For Georgia, the Sugar was essentially weightless. Had they won, they might have been ranked No. 3 in the final Associated Press poll, but that would have been cold comfort after missing the CFP. Bulldog Nation will hate this – fans get upset when their team loses any game – but no great harm was done here. In 2008, Alabama lost the SEC Championship game to Florida and Tim Tebow and then the Sugar Bowl to Utah. The next year, undefeated Bama won the BCS title.
Smart surely remembers that game, having been Nick Saban’s assistant back then. And Georgia’s coach will recall this night as the second time in four years he’d been outflanked in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome by Tom Herman. The two were assistants on Jan. 1, 2015, when Herman was the offensive coordinator for underdog Ohio State, which upset No. 1 Alabama in a CFP semi using a third-string quarterback. Afterward, Smart called Herman to ask how the Buckeyes shredded his defense. Herman’s answer: By playing fast and making those defenders move side-to-side and tire themselves out.
That happened again this New Year’s night. Herman’s Longhorns opened the game with quarterback Sam Ehlinger tossing dinky passes to tailback Tre Watson in the flat. This opened running/scrambling lanes for Ehlinger. He completed passes for only 169 yards but ran for 64 and scored three touchdowns. He was the best player on the field by some distance.
Herman on this latest inspired game plan: “We wanted to run our plays but run them out of different formations and motions. You saw us in pistol quite a bit. You saw us motion in the backfield. You saw us motion the tight end in and out. You saw us motion some receivers. When you've got a month to prepare, as good as that defensive staff is, if you let them diagnose exactly what's going on, they're pretty dang good. So we wanted to disguise a lot of our base plays.”
Then: “ We wanted to play with tempo. We felt we could wear them out a little bit, and they like to play a lot of guys on defense in the front seven. We wanted to make sure we could keep them on the field, and I thought we executed that plan.”
Jake Fromm, Georgia’s quarterback, had his worst game since the last time he visited Louisiana. He was rushed hard and hit often. A rushed pass was intercepted. A sack took the Bulldogs out of field-goal range. As was evident that October day against LSU, he’s not the same when he’s under pressure. (No quarterback is.) He saw his receivers drop three passes early, but he missed at least three open receivers when the game was still winnable.
Oh, and Fields? He didn’t play.
Georgia managed 296 yards against a defense on which Oklahoma had stacked 532 in October and 502 in the conference title game. (Surely some in Norman, Okla., were snickering at the struggles of the team that insisted it should have been the CFP’s No. 4 seed.) The Bulldogs’ second touchdown came with 10:25 to go; its third arrived with 14 seconds left. They’d been a better team than Texas over the season’s first 13 games, but they were decidedly second-best on this night.
Speaking of Texas, Smart said: “They showed to me they wanted it more than we did.” That’s often said after games, usually incorrectly, but bowls are different animals. Ninety percent of a non-playoff bowl has to do with who wants to be there. Texas wanted to be here. Georgia wanted to be in the playoff.
Was that, Smart was asked, the explanation for what transpired? “That would be easy to say,” he said. “But you go to a meeting, you think about Texas. You go on the practice field, you think about Texas. … That would be easy to say, but I’m not touching that. Texas outplayed us, outcoached us, out-physical’ed us.”
Afterward, MVP Ehlinger told those celebrants wearing burnt orange: “Longhorn Nation, we’re baaaack!” That’s what this meant to Texas. Its fans were louder in pregame, its band brassier, its mascot more menacing. Bevo, the 1,600-pound steer, lunged at Uga, the English bulldog, much to the delight of social media the world over. No canine blood was shed, but everything about the run-up to kickoff told us what we’d figured: Texas had come to play.
Georgia? Not so much. This was its fifth loss of the past two seasons, the first in which the Bulldogs were bested by a team of significantly lesser talent. But Herman is a dandy underdog coach – you’ll recall his Houston Cougars upsetting Florida State in the Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl – and this was always seen as a bridge season for Georgia. This team wasn’t quite as good as last year’s; next year’s bunch could be the best of the three.
After every game, season-ending ones in particular, the temptation is great to affix cosmic meaning. But we ask: Did the dolorous Music City Bowl loss to Boston College in December 2001 prevent Mark Richt’s second batch of Bulldogs from going 14-1 and winning the SEC? (Nope.) Next year is nine months away, and this game will soon be forgotten by Georgia fans. Texans will remember it a good long while.
Here was Smart on what Georgia might have learned: “You’d better show up and play every game.” Really, though, his Bulldogs knew that already. They just got distracted. Human Nature 1, UGA 0.