As hard as it might be for the Georgia Bulldogs to swallow, the best example of how to handle a midseason face plant such as was Saturday’s loss to South Carolina would be to follow the lead of Florida’s 2008 team.
Led by quarterback Tim Tebow, the No. 4-ranked Gators lost in Week 5 to an Ole Miss team that had lost to Wake Forest and Vanderbilt. That 31-30 defeat led to the famous “promise speech” by Tebow that is now preserved in marble in Gainesville. In it, Tebow apologized for the loss and guaranteed that no team would play harder than Florida the rest of the way.
The Gators would not lose again and dominated every opponent on the way to the national championship.
Georgia (5-1, 2-1 SEC) similarly dropped from No. 3 to 10th in the national rankings after Saturday’s 20-17 double-overtime defeat at the hands of the three-loss Gamecocks. But the Bulldogs can take some solace in that that Florida team represents just one of many examples of great teams of the past overcoming inexplicable failings – including Georgia itself.
“We had that conversation in the locker room after the game,” coach Kirby Smart said of all the Bulldogs’ goals still being attainable. “This is not the first time we've had to deal with this. Each year, we’ve had to deal with it at different times from different opponents. (The players) acknowledge that. They understand.”
The formula is simple: Georgia simply can’t lose again.
It’s one that many others have followed.
Only once this century has an Eastern Division team reached the SEC Championship game undefeated, and that was the 2009 Gators. Other than that, every team has had at least one loss, including the past two Georgia teams.
Skeptics will point out that the Bulldogs’ defeats the previous two seasons were more defensible. They fell on the road to No. 13 LSU (36-17) last year and to 10th-ranked Auburn in 2017.
But some great Georgia teams have had face plants similar to one Saturday and gone on to record great seasons:
- The 2012 team, which finished five yards from a national championship shot in a loss to Alabama in the SEC title game, lost to South Carolina 35-7 in Columbia in October that season.
- The 2007 team that would finish 11-2 and ranked No. 2 in the nation lost 35-14 to an unheralded Tennessee team and nearly lost to Vanderbilt the following week.
- The 2002 SEC championship team that would finish 13-1 with a No. 3 final ranking lost to a Florida squad that was 8-5 that season.
That’s just this century. Georgia’s 1976 SEC championship team lost to an Ole Miss team that was 5-6 that season, and the ’68 SEC champions tied a Houston team at Sanford Stadium that won only six games that season.
As former UGA coach Vince Dooley used to say, “a team is not defined by how it gets knocked down, but in how it gets back up.”
As corny as that sounds, the Bulldogs’ ability to buy into that concept likely will determine how they do from here.
They’re definitely espousing the philosophy.
“Some people are kind of freaking out about (losing), but we can learn a lot from it and get better after a loss,” senior tight end Charlie Woerner said. “I think we’re going to come out and be ready to practice and be really motivated because the team knows that everything is not lost. … We’ve got something to prove.”
That was the attitude of Tebow’s Gators in 2008. What happened to the Clemson Tigers of 2016 might be even more relevant.
Quarterback Deshaun Watson threw three interceptions as No. 2 Clemson suffered a stunning 43-42 loss at home to a Pitt team that would finish 8-5. Those same Tigers hung on to beat Alabama 35-31 to claim to the 2016 national championship.
That’s not to say that the 2019 Bulldogs are destined for a similar fate. Serious flaws were exposed not only in the loss to South Carolina, but in some of the wins that preceded it. How Georgia addresses those shortcomings and the attitude it displays while doing so will determine which direction it goes from here.
The first indications of how it’s doing to that end will come at 6 p.m. Saturday, when the Bulldogs play host to Kentucky (3-3, 1-3). It's another opponent over which Georgia is favored by more than three touchdowns.
“That’s more important than talking about the rest of the year,” Smart said. “We have to correct our mistakes, and our guys have to focus on Kentucky. The most important thing for us is Kentucky and us getting better.”
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