Alabama looms, but UGA must handle Michigan in Miami first

Nothing refocuses the collective mind of a team like seeing its name in a playoff grid. Shortly after noon Sunday, Georgia saw its name bracketed into an Orange Bowl date with Michigan. As pick-me-ups go, that’s the best the Bulldogs could have done. They might see Alabama again. They won’t see Alabama next.

Georgia lost to the Crimson Tide on Saturday for the SEC championship. That game’s gone. If these Bulldogs win twice more, nobody will care about that dire day at Mercedes-Benz Stadium. Ask Nick Saban if he regards the 2017 season, which saw Alabama finish second in the SEC West but beat Georgia for the national championship, as a disappointment.

Georgia was the only team playing for a conference title that knew, as much as the behavior of the College Football Playoff committee can be known, it could lose and make the field of four. That was their reward for having gone 12-0. Had the Bulldogs won, they’d be playing Cincinnati, which seems less formidable than Michigan, in Irving, Texas, which is believed to have been Kirby Smart’s preferred destination. Being relocated to Miami Gardens, Fla., was their penalty for losing to Bama.

Not that it’s much of a penalty. They’ll grace the better of the two semifinals in South Florida, which isn’t the worst place to spend the final week of any calendar year. Even after being humbled by Alabama, the Bulldogs are where they need to be. Oh, and they might get another shot at the Tide.

It’s a truism of coaching that players listen harder after a loss than another in a series of runaway wins. As Smart said Sunday on ESPN’s selection show: “Our guys are like sponges right now.”

The 2017 Bulldogs lost to Auburn 40-17 when ranked No. 1 by the CFP committee. Three weeks later, Georgia beat the Tigers 28-7 for the SEC championship and a playoff berth. Alabama played its best game of the season Saturday. The Tide were primed: They knew had to beat Georgia to make the CFP. Should the teams meet again in Indianapolis, the stakes will be the same for both. The Bulldogs also will know what not to do. (First tip: Try harder to sack Bryce Young.)

I hereby give up picking Georgia to beat Alabama. I’ve reached the stage where I’ll believe it only when I see it, and maybe not then. That said, there are reasons not to fold on the Bulldogs just yet. I doubt Smart will name JT Daniels his starting quarterback for the semifinal. Still, the next time Georgia falls behind – this assumes there’ll be a next time, which there might not – I suspect the coach will be less apt to stick with Stetson Bennett over the entirety of another second half.

Saturday’s game meant elimination only for Alabama had it lost, which it didn’t. There’s a reason that Nick Saban has won seven national titles. He didn’t bother trying to run the ball early in the game. (Smart said afterward he expected as much.) Saban had Young throw and keep throwing. Georgia couldn’t cover Jameson Williams and John Metchie, though the latter suffered a knee injury and figures to miss the playoff.

Enough about Alabama, at least for now. Georgia is about to face a team it hasn’t seen since 1965. The Bulldogs have faced Michigan twice, the first time in 1957. Both games came in Ann Arbor. The Wolverines won the first 26-0. They lost the second 15-7. Vince Dooley was in his second season as coach. Preston Ridlehuber hit Pat Hodgson for the go-ahead touchdown inside the final five minutes. Georgia would go five years before attempting another forward pass. (Kidding.)

This is Jim Harbaugh’s seventh season as Michigan’s coach. While with the 49ers, he overcame a 17-point lead to beat the Falcons in the NFC title game. He talked big after being hired by his alma mater. He dared to tweak the SEC by holding satellite camps – remember the fuss over those? – in Southern settings. Trouble is, he couldn’t beat Ohio State, which a Michigan coach must do. His Wolverines hadn’t won their division, let alone reached the playoff. In last year’s COVID-19 season, Michigan was 2-4. This was the put-up-or-shut-up year for Harbaugh. He put up.

He dumped Don Brown, the venerable defensive coordinator, for Mike Macdonald, who’d worked under John Harbaugh, Jim’s brother, with the NFL Ravens. On Oct. 30, Michigan blew a 30-14 lead and lost at Michigan State. The Wolverines haven’t lost since. They beat Ohio State 42-27. They beat Iowa 42-3. Factoid: Harbaugh is the brother-in-law of Tom Crean, Georgia’s basketball coach.

Vegas has established Georgia as a seven-point favorite. Alabama is favored by two touchdowns over Cincinnati. As sick as Georgia fans are of the Tide, there may be no escaping them. First things first, though. Michigan in Miami won’t be easy. Oklahoma in the Rose Bowl wasn’t easy, either. Georgia won that semifinal in overtime. It will win this semifinal without need of overtime.

(I said I wouldn’t pick the Bulldogs to beat Alabama anymore. Regarding Michigan, I said no such thing.)