Kirby Smart seeks 'engaged, excited kids' to play in Sugar Bowl

Georgia (11-2) is headed to the Allstate Sugar Bowl for the second consecutive season and will face Baylor Jan. 1 in New Orleans.

“Look at the Sugar falling from the sky; look at the Sugar falling from the sky!”

Remember those words from Georgia’s legendary radio announcer Larry Munson back in the 1980s? Doesn’t exactly feel that way nowadays, does it?

That’s back when the Sugar Bowl was an ultimate destination for college football teams. Georgia won its last national championship by defeating Notre Dame in the Sugar Bowl following the 1980 season.

It’s still a big deal, but considerably bigger on Jan. 13 rather than Jan. 1.

For the second consecutive year, the Bulldogs have landed in New Orleans for the New Year’s Day bowl. No. 5 Georgia (11-2) will play No. 7 Baylor (11-2) at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome in what many think is one of the best of the “New Year’s Six” matchups.

The Superdome will host the College Football Playoff national championship game 12 days later and that’s the game Georgia, which opened the season ranked No. 3, focused on playing in this season. Will the Bulldogs be motivated for the Sugar Bowl, especially considering an indifferent attitude by some contributed to last year’s 28-21 loss to Texas?

“What I found out last year was, for a lot of kids, it was the most important game of their season and meant much to them; and then, maybe for some others, it didn’t,” Georgia coach Kirby Smart said. “You’ve got to take the guys that are engaged and excited about playing because that matters a whole lot more than how good they are.”

Last year, eventual first-round draft pick Deandre Baker chose not to play for fear of jeopardizing his draft status. The New York Giants ended up selecting the UGA cornerback with the last pick of the first round.

Backup quarterback Justin Fields also made the trip, even through the Bulldogs knew he intended to transfer and would not play. Several other upperclassmen either sat out due to injury or played limited roles.

Georgia has several players who fall into the same demographic this season. Offensive tackle Andrew Thomas is a consensus projection as a Top 5 pick. Running back D’Andre Swift’s status is much less certain but, he too, has some first-round projections (No. 22 by WalterFootball.com and 247Sports.com).

Even Jake Fromm (19 Walter Football) and guard Solomon Kindley (27 WalterFootball) are getting some first-round mention in those unscientific projections. It’s reasonable to think that Thomas, a 6-foot-5, 320-pound junior, would skip the bowl game.

“For me personally, I’m just need to talk to my parents, talk to my coaches,” said Thomas, who was named an All-American on Monday. “I haven’t made any decisions yet. … That’s something I’ll have to talk to my parents and coaches about.”

Swift had a similar response. “I’ll think about that when it’s time to think about that,” he said after the SEC Championship game. “Right now I’m just worried about my teammates after we took a tough loss.”

Last year, the Bulldogs felt they had been wronged by not being included in the College Football Playoff following a tightly-contested and well-played SEC title game loss to Alabama. This year they can make no such argument following a 37-10 shellacking by No. 1-ranked LSU.

Smart acknowledged that an attitude adjustment may be necessary for his team this year. The Bulldogs will need to be at their best as they’ll be facing a No. 7-ranked Baylor team seeking its first 12-win season in school history.

“We learned a lot of things,” Smart said of last year’s trip to New Orleans. “First thing we did when we got back last year, we had a bunch of notes written up by every coach and sports staff member of things we could do better or different … if we you’re playing in a non-playoff situation. So we’ve got some ideas. We’ll look at those.”

It sounds as though Georgia might be leaning harder on younger players rather veterans.

“The bottom line is, it’s your job to go play in a football game,” Smart said. “You get a great opportunity, and there’s a lot of teams across the country that would be dying to play in a game like this. So we’re going to sell it that way.

“It’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to be Sugar Bowl champs. None of the kids on our team have ever been Sugar Bowl champs. They’re going to get an opportunity to do that, and we’re going to take the ones that want to do that and play well.”