Athens — The bleary-eyed Georgia Bulldogs faithful woke up Sunday looking to shake off the hangover of an SEC Championship defeat that cost them a shot at a national title and instead plunged the team into postseason purgatory.
Georgia was just one tipped pass away from a shot at their first national title in three decades, and many were reluctant to come to terms with that most painful sports cliche: There’s always next year.
This wasn’t like most letdowns. It was a game that had a season’s worth of heart-pounding ups and stomach-churning downs, and moving on wasn’t going to be easy.
“I felt like I made every play with those guys,” the Rev. Bill Ricketts, who pastors Prince Avenue Baptist Church, told his frustrated flock on Sunday morning. “I know they’re more bruised than I am, but I’m just as exhausted.”
And few of the fans were riled up about Georgia’s New Year’s Day matchup against Nebraska in the Capital One Bowl in Orlando.
Across a quiet downtown Athens, where workers tidied up the remnants of disappointment that spewed from watering holes late Saturday, the team’s diehards were finding it more difficult to let go than they thought.
“That was the worst way to lose,” said Eric Williams, 22, who was splayed out on a blanket on campus, recovering from a night he’d rather forget. “If we just lost it would be fine. But the way we lost is still bothering me. I just think about what could have been.”
His friend, 22-year-old Becca Thomas, was equally unnerved. “I kind of don’t want to do anything right now.”
The sound of the Chapel Bell, usually reserved for UGA victories and happier occasions, still pealed out over campus. But this time the reason was Stephanie Hill, a 27-year-old Alabama graduate who couldn’t mask her jubilation as she pulled the bell’s rope in the middle of campus Sunday afternoon.
“I’m feeling good,” she said, a wide grin suggesting that was an understatement. “I had to restrain myself at the bar last night, though. I didn’t want to get beat up.”
Her local host, a 23-year-old Georgia graduate named Carolanne Lott, couldn’t help but chime in.
“I keep on saying we played a better game than Alabama,” she said wistfully.
Perhaps time will help some fans deal with the defeat. A good night’s rest did for Chase Newman, a 24-year-old senior who was hoping his final year in Athens would be the best.
“What a ride it’s been,” said Newman, who works at a downtown Athens memorabilia store that was unusually quiet on Sunday. “I was upset last night - it happened so fast I was in disbelief. But I woke up this morning and thought differently. It was a helluva game, we just came up short.”
For others, sleep was no solace at all.
“I woke up this morning hoping last night was just a bad ending to a dream,” said David Lazarus, a 28-year-old physician who now works in Atlanta.
And then there were fans like Don Moore, a 52-year-old who put together a makeshift elephant graveyard outside the Georgia Dome before Saturday’s game, complete with tombstones commemorating each of Georgia’s victories against the Crimson Tide.
“We’ll come back next year and start all over again,” he said. “I’ve used 1,066 birthday candles since 1980 wishing for another football national championship. And I can waste some more wishes if I have to.”
And for Newman, the UGA senior? Well, he’s found his own silver lining.
“At least I can focus on finals now,” he said. “I know I need to.”