Mark Bradley

Mark Bradley is a sports columnist and blogger for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

UGA’s season assessed: Was it a backward step?

Losing the final two games after being in place to make the College Football Playoff was a lousy ending. A fake punt in one stadium named for a German automobile and a no-show in the other left Georgia 11-3 and surely closer to the bottom of the top 10 in the final Associated Press poll than to the top. But today, having had more than a few hours to reflect on the Sugar Bowl loss to Texas, we attempt to assess the bigger picture.

» Was the 2018 season a disappointment? 

The ending, yes. The season itself, not so much. This correspondent had Georgia ranked No. 3 – behind guess who and guess who else – in his preseason Top 25. The Bulldogs will wind up No. 8 or thereabouts. But a key reason I had them that high was that I thought they had another bunny schedule. Turned out they didn’t. They wound up playing five teams that will finish in the top 12 – Alabama, Florida, LSU, Kentucky and Texas. Had I known as much back in August, I wouldn’t have picked Georgia to go 12-0. More like 10-2. 

» You don’t think 11-3 after 13-2 was a step backward?

Maybe a baby step. Georgia lost three generational talents – Roquan, Chubb and Michel – after almost winning the national title. It again won its division, and the SEC East was brawnier this time around. (Ask Michigan and Penn State.) It again played Alabama tough, and the Alabama of Dec. 1 was better than the Bama of Jan. 8. It almost made the playoff as a two-loss non-champ, which would have been unprecedented. Put it this way: If Georgia just beats Texas and is 12-2, we wouldn’t be hearing many complaints. 

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» But Georgia didn’t beat Texas. Won’t that loss haunt this program for years? 

I shouldn’t haunt anything beyond this week. It was a bowl that didn’t much matter. Georgia played that way. Full credit to Texas for seizing the moment – the Longhorns were primed, and Tom Herman is a tremendous tactician – but dynamics were 90 percent of this result. If those same teams met in the same building on Labor Day weekend with both 0-0, who wins? I understand Bulldog Nation and chief spokesman Tim Worley being upset, but come on. Penn State lost to Kentucky. Michigan got routed by Florida. Central Florida played with its backup quarterback and gave LSU a real go. In this era, non-playoff bowls are built for emotion-driven upsets. Be offended all you like, but that’s the reality. 

» Didn’t this loss fall almost entirely on Kirby Smart? 

It’s a coach’s job to get his team ready to play, and his wasn’t. I’d suggest, though, that even Nick Saban, the greatest there ever was, would have struggled with this assignment. (Saban’s Alabama has twice lost bowls after being eliminated from BCS title consideration at the final hurdle – to Utah after losing the 2008 SEC title to Florida and to Oklahoma after the Kick Six loss of 2013.) College players aren’t robots. Technically, they’re still amateurs. Georgia was so distracted as it headed to New Orleans it’s a wonder it didn’t wind up in Amarillo. 

» Shouldn’t Smart have told his players not to use social media to vent about the playoff semifinals? 

Yes. He should have. If the Bulldogs weren’t already primed to lose, that absolutely teed them up. That was a mistake. 

» Enough about Texas. What happened with Justin Fields? 

I’d say he any reason he had to believe he could beat out Jake Fromm didn’t reflect – to use that word again – reality. Even football people concede that Fromm doesn’t have the strongest arm, but he tends to put the ball where it needs to go, and he doesn’t make many mistakes. When in doubt, a coach will invariably err on the side of the quarterback less apt to get him beat. That was always going to be Fromm, even if Fields is the bigger talent. 

» Did Smart give Fields a fair chance in games? 

Probably not, but there wasn’t a way to give Fields a fair shot without being unfair to Fromm. Fields coming in for one play and handing the ball off and leaving Fromm to re-enter facing second-and-10 did a disservice to both. The Fields cameos against SEC-caliber competition became wasted downs. Georgia tried, at least a bit, to make it work, but this was always going to be unworkable. As offensive coordinator Jim Chaney said last week: “At that position, there’s only one of them walking out there on the field.” (And remember: The great Tua Tagovailoa didn’t start a game as a freshman. Did finish a pretty big one, though.) 

» Smart has lost 10 games over his first three seasons, winning the SEC once and the East twice. Mark Richt lost eight games his first three years, winning the SEC once and the East twice. Isn’t Smart actually behind his predecessor? 

The difference is that Richt’s Georgia didn’t – and never would – play for a national title, although there’s an apples/oranges aspect to that. Had there been a playoff then, the Bulldogs would have made it in 2002. And I won’t lie: At that time, I fully believed that Richt would indeed make Georgia a national champion. That feeling waned over time. I do consider Smart’s way more sustainable, and I’d note that Richt’s star began to descend once Saban arrived in Tuscaloosa. Smart has already demonstrated the ability to be competitive with King Crimson in a way any SEC team looking to break upward must be. That augurs well. It will be a surprise if Georgia isn’t in the playoff next year. 

» Aren’t you forgetting one thing? 

Haven’t forgotten. Just was waiting to close with it. The caveat for Smart’s Georgia is the same as for anybody’s Georgia: What if Florida gets really good? That could be happening. This might have been the worst team Dan Mullen produces for a while, and it just went 10-3 and beat Michigan. As much as I believe Smart has Georgia on a stairway to heaven, that stairway isn’t wide enough for two.

About the Author

Mark Bradley is a sports columnist and blogger for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. He has been with the AJC since 1984.

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