“I hate you, man.”
That’s what Baylor coach Matt Rhule said to Georgia wide receiver George Pickens after the Sugar Bowl. Passing each other in a hallway deep in the bowels of the Superdome, a half-hour after the Bulldogs’ 26-14 victory late Wednesday night, Rhule’s words were delivered with a smile and were followed by one of those respectful man-hugs.
“You were killing us, man,” Rhule reiterated playfully.
“Thanks,” Pickens agreed.
Pickens did, indeed, kill the Bears. Named the Sugar Bowl’s outstanding player of the game, he tied a UGA bowl record held by Hines Ward with 12 catches and advanced them down the field to the tune of 175 yards and a touchdown. It was the most receptions by any Georgia player in any game since Michael Johnson had 13 versus Auburn in 2002 and the most receiving yards since Tavarres King had 188 against Kentucky in 2012. The touchdown gave Pickens eight receiving TDs this season, tops in the nation among freshmen.
That’s exciting for the Bulldogs considering Pickens returns next season. In fact, he’s one of a lot of talented players coming back off this 12-2 Georgia team.
To be sure, a lot of good ones are leaving, too, most of them of their choice. Third-year offensive tackles Andrew Thomas and Isaiah Wilson turned pro before the Sugar Bowl, and running back D’Andre Swift made his long-awaited announcement Friday that he was following them.
But 17 of the 22 players who started Wednesday in the Sugar Bowl will be available to go when the next season begins against Virginia in the Chick-Fil-A Kickoff game Sept. 7. From Wednesday’s game, that represented the leading tackler, the leading rusher, the leading receiver and the leading passer.
Pickens is the program-changer out of that group. Then again, he’s only as good as the quarterback delivering the ball to him.
That’s why Jake Fromm’s NFL draft decision, expected to come sometime in the next two weeks, is so important. As demonstrated in the Sugar Bowl, not only has Fromm been very good for Georgia these past three seasons – 36-7 as Bulldogs quarterback – but he seems to have developed a special chemistry with Pickens this season.
“I love George,” said Fromm, who targeted him on 50 percent of his 30 attempts and got 60 percent of his 20 completions for 70 percent of his 250 yards from him Wednesday. “… What I love about George is he loves football, loves going out, competing. I can say he's the same guy, same competitor every single day. I know I love it and I know coach (Kirby Smart) loves it.
“He's a competitor. He goes out and competes. Seeing him do something like he did today, no surprise to us.”
As agreeable as Smart is about that, he was careful not to start throwing bouquets in Pickens’ direction, or anybody’s, for that matter. This is, after all, the coach who refers to praise as “rat poison.”
He’s also the coach who assigned the phrase “Do More” to the 2019 season. After falling short of the College Football Playoff in 2018, that could only mean not falling short in this last one.
The Bulldogs did -- again.
So while Smart hasn’t yet come up with a theme for the 2020 season, he seems to be working on something along the lines of “Don’t Believe the Hype.”
He agrees that a lot of talent is coming back. But if that talent doesn’t improve, then two losses and another Sugar Bowl berth might be in the offing again.
That’s not the goal, Smart reminded.
“There’s a disease that creeps in at Georgia where kids believe they are better than they are and they read their own press clippings,” Smart said. “Our team chaplain did a wonderful job today expressing that in a verse.”
Smart couldn’t cite the verse, but the Bulldogs’ chaplain, Thomas Settles, confirmed that his sermon to the team heading into the Sugar Bowl came from Romans 12:3.
In one translation it reads: “Because of the privilege and authority God has given me, I give each of you a warning: Don’t think you are better than you are. Be honest in your evaluation of yourselves, measuring yourselves by the faith God has given us.”
The translation from the Book of Kirby goes this way: “When you start reading about yourself and believing your own press clippings is when you start to fall. So (we have some) tremendous players. But they’ll only be as good as they can be if they stay as hungry. When you’re not hungry, you become average. And some of that, I think, has affected us in the past. We’ve got to find a way in this program to not let that creep in.”
It certainly was no coincidence that Smart cited the sermon with the tremendously gifted Pickens sitting six feet to his left with the Sugar Bowl’s most outstanding player trophy at his feet. Pickens was hearing all night how good he was – and will continue to into next season.
For good reason. Pickens wrapped up his first collegiate season with 49 catches for 727 yards and eight touchdowns. It was the best season by a UGA receiver since Malcom Mitchell had 865 yards in 2015.
But it was also a season in which Pickens ran some bad routes and had some referees’ flags and a suspension thrown his way. As good as he looked, he is far from a finished product.
Of this, Pickens seems to have taken note.
“I’ve still got growing to do, but I can kind of tell myself that I‘m improving every day,” Pickens said at the postgame news conference. “I mean, it was a great season to me. You win some; you lose some. But I feel like every day, every practice, every walk-through, we just fought. I like winning that way.”
Indeed, winning is good. The Bulldogs want more of it.
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