It was a once-in-a-lifetime thing. Five Decembers ago, Bulldog Nation flocked to California via planes, trains and automobiles. Georgia was in the Rose Bowl for the second time ever. Bigger still, Georgia was in the College Football Playoff, a place it hadn’t been. No one knows how many IRAs and 529s were raided for the requisite funds, but sometimes money – and its source– is no object.

Flights from Hartsfield-Jackson to LAX – and SNA, the airport in Orange County, and ONT, out past Riverside – were gone in a flash. San Diego became a workaround, then San Francisco, then Vegas. Then this: fly into Albuquerque and journey the final 800 miles by wagon train. (Actually, rented SUVs.) But it was worth it. The Bulldogs’ biggest game since Jan. 1, 1983, was a classic. Georgia 54, Oklahoma 48. After two overtimes, no less.

It was a once-in-a-lifetime thing, the Rose Bowl of Jan. 1, 2018. Back then, UGA fans had no idea if that breakout season was but a blip. Indeed, the Bulldogs’ time in ecstasy lasted eight days – from the moment Sony Michel dashed through Oklahoma’s weary defense in the gathering dark at the foot of the San Gabriel Mountains to that rainy night in Georgia when Tua Tagovailoa threw long on second-and-26, also in OT.

Just like that, another “almost” attached itself to the program that led the world in that dubious category. Georgia came close to a second consecutive CFP run, but another Alabama backup – Jalen Hurts this time – undid them in an epic SEC championship game. The next year they were overwhelmed by LSU and Joe Burrow and his many receivers. The next year, the COVID year, they didn’t win the SEC East.

Headed into the 2021 season, the Rose Bowl experience had become a cherished memory. On that day, everything seemed possible for Kirby Smart and his Bulldogs. Georgia hadn’t collapsed – it went 31-7 over the subsequent three seasons – but it had come no closer to the ultimate prize. It had regressed.

Jake Fromm’s moment didn’t arrive. The promise of Justin Fields wasn’t tapped, at least until he left for points north. Jamie Newman didn’t play a down. J.T. Daniels couldn’t stay healthy. Somehow Smart, the manic recruiter, kept coming back to Stetson Bennett, a quarterback Georgia hadn’t offered a scholarship in 2017. It would in 2019, after Bennett spent time at a JUCO in Mississippi.

Then it happened. Bennett, of all people, took Georgia back to the CFP. This time it beat Bama. Now – still with Bennett, a certified legend – it stands two games from a repeat. The logistics are flipped from January 2018. The semifinal will be played in Mercedes-Benz Stadium. The final is set for L.A., albeit a different part of L.A.

SoFi Stadum sits by the Forum, the Lakers’ former home in Inglewood. That’s not a bad thing. Getting to Pasadena on a working Monday is a bear. Should Georgia lose to Ohio State, it would also be a moot point. But the program that spent 40 years falling just short has reinvented itself: Smart’s Bulldogs rise to every moment. They trailed Alabama inside the final 10 minutes in the CFP final last January and won by 15. They’ve trailed in a second half once since.

Georgia keeps winning the games long-suffering fans feared it might never win again. Smart was hired for the express purpose of playing for championships. Challenge met: The Bulldogs are gracing their third playoff in six years. If they don’t win this time, they’ll be back soon enough. (The CFP expands in 2024. Had a 12-team field existed since 2017, Georgia would have made it six years running.)

For the Bulldogs and their many fans, there can be no more once-in-a-lifetime experiences. They’re one game from another pilgrimage to the City of Angels. They’re two games from back-to-back national titles. Alabama is playing Kansas State in a bowl of no consequence. Oh, and Nick Saban is 71.

Smart turned 47 two days before Christmas. This could go on a while. Heck, it already has.