Georgia’s football season didn’t end Dec. 7. It only felt that way to the Bulldogs. Losing to LSU in the SEC Championship game cost them a berth in the College Football Playoff, which is the thing that mattered most. Soon we’ll see if Georgia still is hungover for Wednesday’s Sugar Bowl against No. 7 Baylor.
“It's been a long time,” Smart said Tuesday. “Get over it. Time to get better and go grow.”
» MORE: Georgia Bulldogs’ bowl history
To that list, I would add one more goal for Georgia: Win the game. I don’t mean that only in the Herm Edwards sense that competitive pride should be high even when the stakes are low. And it’s not just that the Sugar Bowl should be a big deal even when it’s not part of the CFP.
Rather, the Bulldogs should be motivated to beat Baylor because it’s been a while since they beat anyone in December or January. They’ve lost four postseason games in a row. They ought to be eager to end that streak. Besides, winning is fun.
Georgia’s last postseason triumph was the rousing Rose Bowl victory against Oklahoma in the 2017 CFP semifinal. Alabama beat Georgia the next week at Mercedes-Benz Stadium. The Crimson Tide did it again in the 2018 SEC Championship game. That loss sent the Bulldogs to the Sugar Bowl, where Texas topped them. LSU lapped Georgia in the last SEC title game.
Three of those defeats ended Georgia’s national title hopes. Losing to Texas didn’t cost the Bulldogs much unless you count the wounded pride of getting pushed around by a Big 12 also-ran. It could happen again if they aren’t ready for Baylor, which lost two games to CFP-qualifier Oklahoma by a combined 10 points.
The last Sugar Bowl experience prompted Smart to change his approach for this one. The Bulldogs brought only those players the coach believed really want to be here. Smart said Georgia has practiced well in preparation for the game. He said the same thing before last year’s game. Maybe this time the Bulldogs will provide evidence in the Superdome.
It will be a letdown if they don’t. Sure, Georgia will be missing at least 13 players from its two-deep depth chart. Yes, Baylor is a very good team that brought all its key players to New Orleans. And we can surmise that the Bears will be fired up to beat an SEC foe in a big game two years after they finished 1-11.
“We’re not (just) happy to be here,” Baylor coach Matt Ruhle said Tuesday. “This is the Sugar Bowl. This is an opportunity to go out and play a great team in Georgia.”
The Georgia team Baylor will face won’t be the one that won the SEC East. At least six UGA starters won’t suit up. Two offensive linemen, tackle Andrew Thomas and guard Isiah Wilson, are prepping for the NFL draft. Safety J.R. Reed (foot) and wide receiver Lawrence Cager (ankle) are out. Tailback Brian Herrien won’t play, and tailback D’Andre Swift (shoulder) will be limited if he does.
Those are key losses. Shaky offensive line play was a factor in both Georgia defeats this season and against Texas in the last year’s Sugar Bowl. The chances of big passing plays go way down when Cager is out. The Bulldogs can’t lean on Swift and Herrien and can’t know how the new-look line will come together in a short time.
But there’s a reason why, even with all the attrition, the Bulldogs still are favored to win by nearly a touchdown.
“With all due respect, Georgia’s issue (isn’t) not having good players,” Ruhle said. “They’ve got good players up and down the board. I mean, they're fantastic. ... I haven’t seen a team play as many guys.”
This wasn’t Ruhle pumping up the Bulldogs. He has good reason to marvel at the waves of talented players Smart can send into games.
Georgia’s past three recruiting classes ranked No. 3, No. 1 and No. 2 nationally, according to the 247Sports Composite. Baylor’s class ranked No. 40 nationally in 2017, Ruhle’s first year, then No. 29 in 2018 and No. 35 in 2019. In the Big 12, Oklahoma and Texas get the best recruits.
Georgia is missing several good players. It still will have Jake Fromm throwing the ball and Rodrigo Blankenship kicking it. Sophomore Jamaree Salyer, projected to start at guard, was the top prospect at his position out of Pace Academy. Reed is an All-American, but the other starting safety, junior Richard LeCounte, is on the come.
The Bulldogs have better players than Baylor. They have the better coach, too, if the market is the measure. Smart’s salary is $6.9 million. Ruhle makes $4.1 million (he’s in line for a big bump soon if NFL teams are calling, as reported).
It’s Smart’s job to get his team back up after the letdown of not making the CFP. He said it’s “really not hard” to do, which makes me wonder why he apparently couldn’t do it for the last Sugar Bowl. The Bulldogs should be stirred to give a good effort in this Sugar Bowl. Do that and they’ve got more than enough good players to end their postseason losing streak.
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