There were worse fates than facing Texas in the Sugar Bowl. When Georgia came within an eyelash of beating Alabama in the 2012 SEC championship game, which served as a de facto play-in to the BCS title tilt, the Bulldogs didn’t land in one of the BCS-affiliated games. They fell to the Capital One Bowl against Nebraska, while Florida – which Georgia had beaten – wound up losing to Louisville in the Sugar.
This Sugar was a New Year’s Six game in prime time Jan. 1, and Texas is not nobody. It stands with Georgia, as Longhorns coach Tom Herman said Monday, on college football’s short list of “major national brands.” People would watch this game. They mightn’t remember its winner, but they’d watch.
For Kirby Smart, though, the Sugar has needed some selling. His Bulldogs had come so close to winning a second consecutive SEC title and thereby qualifying for the College Football Playoff for a second year running that anything less would constitute a comedown. Smart had lobbied for his team to crack the field of four – it wound up No. 5 – and the weak showings by No. 3 Notre Dame and No. 4 Oklahoma in Saturday’s semis touched off a storm of social-media crowing, some of it from Bulldog Nation, but much from the Bulldogs themselves.
When Georgia players met the media Sunday morning, they expressed no such righteous indignation. They surely had been ordered to tone it down, doubtless because they still had a game to play and a worthy opponent to confront. If the Bulldogs were to come out New Year’s night and – apologies for the tangled metaphor – lay an egg, they’d leave the rainy Crescent City with egg on their faces.
Here was Smart on Monday, responding to a question as to whether Georgia should have made the CFP: “Our concern, as you well know, is with Texas. And everything that we'll be judged on is how we finish, and we want to finish the right way. And we want to play our best football game at the end of the year, which is tomorrow night.”
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Coaches live in fear of how their teams will treat a bowl. Everyone in the playoff is primed, but the non-playoff postseason games often hinge on which team is happier to be there and has more to prove. For Texas, this marked the first bowl appearance outside the Lone Star State since Dec. 28, 2011, when the opponent was California and the Holiday Bowl the venue. The Longhorns hadn’t won 10 games in a season since 2009, when they lost to Alabama for the BCS title. Last year they finished 7-6 after beating Missouri in the Texas Bowl. They were, in a word, hungry.
Georgia believes it coulda/shoulda been playing for another national title. In the attempt to snap his men to attention, Smart laid it on thick Sunday. “The opportunity in front of our team is as grand as there is, as there can be, because for our guys they're looking at it as an opportunity to play to a standard, to make a statement, to play to the excellence that we try to create at the University of Georgia. They've got an opportunity to do that against one of the top programs in the country.”
Some of that was even true. Still, the month after the latest near-miss against Alabama has been fraught with intrigue. The ballyhooed freshman quarterback Justin Fields has placed his name in the NCAA transfer protocol. The All-American cornerback Deandre Baker is skipping this game so as not to get hurt ahead of the NFL draft. Several juniors – tailback Elijah Holyfield and tight end Isaac Nauta among them – are considering whether to make themselves draft-available. Even Smart conceded that the past four weeks had been “wild and crazy.”
There seemed little question that Georgia was more talented than Texas. And yet: When last these teams met, the more gifted team lost. That was on Jan. 2, 1984, in the Cotton Bowl. Texas entered ranked No. 2 in the land, which would become a bigger deal that night when No. 1 Nebraska was upset 31-30 by No. 5 Miami, which was rewarded with the national title.
The Bulldogs entered the game 9-1-1 and ranked No. 7 in their first post-Herschel season, but the feeling was that they’d overachieved – they were beaten 13-7 at Sanford Stadium by Auburn in the game that gave the Tigers the SEC title – and would stand little chance against Texas in Texas. The Longhorns led 9-3 with 4-1/2 minutes remaining when Craig Curry muffed a punt. Georgia’s Gary Moss recovered at the Texas 23.
Two plays later, it was third-and-4 at the 17. The Bulldogs had converted only one of 13 third downs. Quarterback John Lastinger faked a handoff and spun right. The pride of Valdosta broke through the line and outran safety Jerry Gray, since enshrined in the College Football Hall of Fame, to the pylon. Georgia would win 10-9. Texas’ chance at a national title was gone.
Of all Vince Dooley’s famous upsets, that Cotton Bowl ranked second to none. Conversely, the Austin American-Statesman declared Curry’s flub the most heartbreaking Texas sports moment of the 20th century. (Ahead of the Longhorns’ two title-denying Cotton Bowl losses to Notre Dame and the Dallas Cowboys losing three Super Bowls by a total of 11 points, not to mention two last-gasp NFL title defeats against Green Bay.)
The better team didn’t win that Cotton Bowl. Georgia managed just 215 yards, but it scored one more point. That’s the sort of result that Smart and staff had been working like mad to prevent. Human nature, however, can be the toughest of all foes. After another Bama disappointment and wild and crazy December, the Bulldogs would gladly have settled for a nice serene NOLA victory.