When did you really, truly believe that UGA was a playoff team?

DaQuan Hawkins-Muckle after his big block.

Credit: Curtis Compton

Credit: Curtis Compton

DaQuan Hawkins-Muckle after his big block.

Bulldogs boots are on the ground in the City of the Angels, which means it’s official. The College Football Playoff is here – or will be, come Jan. 1 – and Team Almost will partake of it. When last Georgia played for a chance to win the national championship, Herschel Walker was still hoping to join the FBI. Thirty-five years later, the 2017 team has served as a collective agent, ahem, of change.

Did we (meaning me but also you) see it coming? Not really. Most projections (mine included) had the Bulldogs going 9-3, maybe 10-2 at best. The other three playoff participants ranked No. 1, No. 5 and No. 7 in the Associated Press preseason poll; Georgia was 15th. It had been tabbed as SEC East favorite by those assembled at Media Days in Hoover, Ala., but only six voters saw the Bulldogs winning the conference title. Alabama was the choice on 217 ballots.

The consensus was that Georgia, which wasn’t very good in Year 1 under Kirby Smart, should be better in Year 2, but nobody was yet sure if Smart could actually coach. Buttressing such skepticism was the 35-year-old truth that this program would always, always trip on its shoelaces. All those great recruits and nary a title shot since Herschel signed with the USFL: That was Georgia.

But no longer. Wednesday’s joint appearance with Oklahoma at Disneyland marked the official kickoff of Semifinal Week, and it serves as a propitious time to ask: At what point did we (meaning me but also you) begin to believe that this Georgia was not like all other Georgias?

After Notre Dame? Maybe a bit. The Bulldogs went somewhere they'd never been and won a to-the-wire game against a brand-name opponent. My hesitance here was that I wasn't sure how good Notre Dame was. The Fighting Irish were coming off a 4-8 season. As it happened, Notre Dame ran off nice victories against Michigan State, USC and N.C. State before running afoul of Miami and Stanford. For a long time, this was the victory that garnished Georgia's playoff application. But I'd be lying if I said, "On the night of Sept. 9, I knew the Bulldogs were bound for glory."

After Mississippi State? This was the eye-opener for me. Georgia led 7-0 after its first snap, which became Jake Fromm's pass off play-action to Terry Godwin. It was 14-0 after one quarter, 31-3 at the end. Georgia's second-team defense stopped a final State foray at the goal line. It was the most comprehensive Georgia performance I'd seen in years. I was convinced that night that this team would win the East. That was, however, as far as I was willing to go.

After Florida? The post-Mississippi State opponents offering varying shades of utter SEC East mediocrity. Only the World's Largest Outdoor Et Cetera even raised an eyebrow, simply because the St. John's River was where so many Georgia seasons had gone to founder. It was 42-0 before the Gators miraculously scored. The Bulldogs weren't just beating their division brethren – they were destroying them. (Aggregate score versus old enemies Florida and Tennessee: 83-7.) Three days later, the CFP committee released its first rankings. If the folks who parse data points saw enough in the Bulldogs to make them No. 1, I was willing to listen. But I did wonder about Auburn.

After Auburn I? If you were there, you knew this was a manhandling. But you also knew that was as amped an atmosphere as has ever been seen in the Deep South's Oldest Rivalry. (Tie with 2007 Blackout Game in Athens.) It would have taken a certifiably great team playing at the top of its game to win that day at Jordan-Hare. Alabama entered the same arena two weeks later and likewise lost. That loss didn't disqualify Georgia from anything. It did, however, make me wonder if the Bulldogs could win a rematch.

After Auburn II? On this Saturday under the unmoving roof of Arthur Blank's pleasure palace, the Bulldogs routed the team that had routed them. It might have been different had Kerryon Johnson been playing at more than half-capacity, but them's the breaks. Georgia did what it hadn't done, won the game it hadn't won – at least not lately. And if you're asking for the moment when I believed this would finally be the Dogs' day … well, there were three.

The first was Davin Bellamy’s sack-from-the-back strip of Jarrett Stidham. If that’s just a regular sack, the Tigers surely take a double-figure lead and you think, “Here they go again.” It reminded me – this really did cross my mind at the time – of Chuck Smith’s strip sack of Randall Cunningham in an NFC Championship game in a different dome, which remains the biggest defensive play in Falcons history.

The second was when DaQuan Hawkins-Muckle, of whom you maybe haven’t heard, blocked what would have been a tying field goal by Daniel Carlson, the SEC’s career leading scorer. You might recall that the freshman Terry Hoage, whom Vince Dooley once described as “the least recruited player in the country,” blocked a Harry Oliver field-goal attempt in the Sugar Bowl on Jan. 1, 1981, that would have given Notre Dame a 6-0 lead.

The third was the two-point conversion to Godwin after Fromm’s touchdown pass to Godwin. The touchdown made the score 19-7. Lots of coaches forget their calculators and worry about chasing an unscored point. Kirby Smart did what anybody watching Kirby Smart’s defense manhandle a Kerryon-less offense should have done: He went for two and watched his team bank it with disdain.

Thirteen minutes remained, but that was the moment I – and perhaps you – absolutely knew. The Bulldogs were SEC champs, bound for the playoff. That was the moment, after all those years, that Georgia wishes and Georgia hopes became Georgia reality.