Disappointment clouds Orange Bowl matchup of No. 6 Georgia, No. 5 FSU

ATHENS – Two extremely disappointed – and, yes, angry – teams will meet in the Orange Bowl on Dec. 30 in Miami Gardens, Fla.

The No. 1 Georgia Bulldogs (12-1) were feeling jilted after falling from No. 1 to No. 6 on Sunday in the College Football Playoff rankings after suffering a closely-contested, three-point loss to Alabama in the SEC Championship game Saturday in Atlanta. But whatever outrage the two-time, defending national champion Bulldogs might’ve been feeling about the selection committee’s decision, multiply it 10-fold for their opponent, the 13-0 Florida State Seminoles.

Despite remaining undefeated and beating Louisville while having to play their third-string quarterback due to injuries, FSU was dropped to No. 5 and will miss out on what would have been its first CFP appearance.

Call it the “Shun Bowl.”

The good news is, there probably isn’t a much better place to sooth one’s ills than South Florida in late December.

The committee’s reasoning for dropping the Seminoles out of the Final Four was they are “not the same team they were for the previous 11 weeks of the season” because they lost star quarterback Jordan Travis to a broken leg on Nov. 18 in a home game against North Alabama in Tallahassee. FSU won two games after that, defeating Florida 24-15 in Gainesville, then beating Louisville 16-3 with their third-string quarterback in the ACC Championship Saturday in Charlotte.

Seminoles coach Mike Norvell was still fuming five hours after the final rankings were revealed on ESPN’s nationally-televised broadcast. Both he and FSU Athletic Director Michael Alford sent out scathing statements criticizing the CFP selection committee for not letting the Seminoles’ winning performances on the field make their case.

“I just hurt for our players,” Norvell said during Orange Bowl’s video conference call Sunday introducing the matchup. “To be honest with you, that was one of the tougher moments I’ve had to experience. Just, for all that they’ve done, you talk to your team about responding to adversity, getting up and going and giving all that you can to be able to find a way to win a college football game and, like Coach Smart says, it’s hard, especially when you face some of the adversities we’ve had this year. … That’s all part of it. But, as we tell our team, ‘your true character shows up in times of adversity.’ Well, wit on we’ve faced it and put it on display.”

With that, Norvell said he wanted to let the statement he issued earlier in the day to stand on the subject and declined to answer further questions on the selection committee’s decision.

“We’re disappointed but respect this opportunity,” Norvell said.

Meanwhile, the Orange Bowl, which is celebrating its 90th anniversary, feels like it has a whale of a postseason competition to stage in pitting the two-time defending national champions against the undefeated champions of the ACC from just up the road in Florida.

“We’re so excited to have this matchup,” Orange Bowl executive director Eric Poms said. “It’s the highest-ranked non-playoff Capital One Orange Bowl in the CFP era, topping last year’s No. 6 vs. No. 7 Clemson-Tennessee matchup. ... Fan excitement is certainly there. Tickets are almost out here, though the schools have their own allotments. So we’re eager to host these two teams.”

Georgia and FSU have met only 11 times previously, the last time coming 20 years ago in the 2003 Sugar Bowl. the Bulldogs lead the series 6-4-1.

While it might seem the Seminoles will bring in a motivational edge from being passed over for the CFP’s Final Four, Georgia and coach Kirby Smart weren’t back in Athens on Sunday dancing a jig after missing the semifinals for the first time in three years.

Smart and his team also feel shunned.

“I empathize with anybody who goes undefeated and doesn’t get in, but I empathize with our players, too, because I feel like we deserved to be in,” Smart said while participarting in the simultaneous Zoom call with Norvell. “We’ve got a really good football team. We were considered the No. 1 football team all year and then fell. So, we’ve got a hornets’ nest of disappointed players around here, too. That works both ways.

“The good thing is we’ve got each other to go play and I know (FSU) will be up for us and we’ll be up for them. You worry a lot more when you have a matchup (players) might not look as forward to.”

The question neither team could answer on Sunday is just who all will be available to play in the game on Dec. 30 at Hard Rock Stadium in Miami Gardens, Fla. (4 p.m., ESPN). The window for the NCAA’s transfer portal, which truly never closes, officially opens on Monday. This happens simultaneous to the December visitation period for the early-signing period also opening.

Norvell and the Seminoles didn’t return to Tallahassee until well after midnight Sunday and they gathered at Doak Campbell Stadium to watch the CFP selection reveal live with ESPN’s cameras on site. In retrospect, that probably wasn’t a great idea, but it demonstrated the confidence the Seminoles had about becoming a semifinalist. No undefeated Power 5 conference championship ever had been left out in the nine-year history of the four-team playoff.

Meanwhile, both coaches are having to juggle roster management ahead of the game. Georgia expects numerous players to be heading exiting through the portal. Meanwhile, they can’t be sure who among their NFL draft-eligible players might choose to hang around through the bowl game and which ones might want to rest weary bodies or start reshaping them ahead of early January’s draft declaration.

The Bulldogs and Seminoles both have highly-touted prospects who might have remained with their team in a national championship-pursuit scenario but not necessarily for one in which a bowl trophy, gift bags and bragging rights are the ultimate reward.

“I don’t know if it was the Texas year or what year it was but, man, it was a struggle, it was tough,” Smart said, referring to the year the disappointed Bulldogs played the Longhorns in the 2019 Sugar Bowl, which followed the 2018 season. “There was a lot of disappointment, and we just took the motto that, ‘hey, you’re either in or your out, man.’ It’s that simple We’re going to go compete, go practice and get after it after a long, tough, grueling year with a championship week on top of it. But that’s what we’re going to do. We’re going to practice this many times and you’re either going to buy into it or not.”

No. 5 Georgia lost to No. 15 Texas 28-21 that year. But the Bulldogs performed much better when they went back as the No. 5 team the next year and defeated No. 7 Baylor 26-14.

Smart is supposed to meet with fourth-year junior quarterback Carson Beck later this week to discuss his prospects going forward. A lucrative NIL deal reportedly will be in the offing.

In the meantime, most discussions already have been had or can wait until later.

“They need some time to decompress,” Smart said of his players, who he met with briefly Sunday afternoon at the Butts-Mehre football complex. “I’m not expecting anyone to not play, to be honest with you. But when (the time) comes, we’ll have those conversations with them and talk with them. I know some will be in the portal because those conversations have been happening for several weeks now leading up to this time, so we’ll have some guys who opt not to be in the game.”

Senior running back Kendall Milton is among a small number who already have publicly pledged to play. Dozens of others remain in limbo.

Largely forgotten now following Georgia’s record run to two national championships is the Bulldogs probably led the nation in close-call scenarios when it came to being left out of the championship. Next year, neither Georgia nor Florida State would be in nearly as agitated a state as the CFP is expanding to 12 teams. Both would probably be complaining about missing out on a first-round bye, but at least they’d know a national championship trophy would still be within the realm of possibility.

Sunday, both were grappling with the reality of that now being completely out of reach.

“It is disappointing,” Norvell said. “You look at this Georgia team -- and I’m going to say this for Coach Smart – you go undefeated and lose the conference championship game by one score and that’s the end of your opportunity to win a national championship, that’s hard.”

So, then, is going undefeated and winning your conference championship and being denied an opportunity to win it all. The Seminole Nation as a whole was still reverberating with aftershock tremors Sunday from that reality.

Travis himself was perhaps hurting more than anybody about it. “Devastated. heartbroken,” he wrote on his social media platforms Sunday. “I wish my leg broke earlier in the season so y’all could see this team is much more than the quarterback. I thought results matter. 13-0 and this roster matches up across any team in those top 4 rankings. I am so sorry.”

Georgia in Orange Bowl

  • Jan. 1, 1942 Bulldogs 40, TCU 26
  • Jan. 1, 1949 Texas 41, Bulldogs 28
  • Jan. 1, 1960 Bulldogs 14, Missouri 0
  • Dec. 31, 2021 Bulldogs 34, Michigan 11

* FSU is 5-5 in 10 previous appearances at the Orange Bowl