ATHENS ― The parallels between what Georgia is doing and what Clemson has done are uncanny.
There is not an emotion that the Bulldogs or their fans are feeling that the Tigers did not experience two years ago. Clemson made it to the National Championship Game following the 2015 season in the second year of the College Football Playoff and pushed perennial powerhouse Alabama to the brink. But Dabo Swinney’s Tigers came up short, losing 45-40.
Clemson also fell victim to some of Nick Saban’s masterful in-game calls. The Tigers led heading into the fourth quarter. But after Alabama tied the game at 24-24 with 10:34 left in the game, Saban took a gamble and called for an onside kick to try to keep the ball away from Clemson’s red-hot quarterback, Deshaun Watson. It worked. Marlon Humphrey recovered and the Crimson Tide quickly scored on a 51-yard touchdown pass to give them a lead they’d never relinquish.
But Clemson never went away. The Tigers stayed right on Bama’s tail until the very end. The outcome wasn’t decided until Clemson’s onside kick attempt sailed out of bounds with seconds left in the game.
Clemson players and fans were devastated. It had been 34 years since the program’s last national championship. They felt like victory was in their grasp, and they let it slip away.
Georgia players and fans can relate. On Jan. 8, the Bulldogs led 13-0 at halftime and 20-10 heading into the fourth quarter before finally falling to Alabama 26-23 in overtime of the National Championship Game. What made the loss even harder to take was that the Tide’s winning score came on a 41-yard pass on second-and-26 with Georgia leading by 3.
In Clemson’s case, the Tigers made it back to the National Championship Game following the 2016 season, but this time the Tigers vanquished the Alabama monster. They won 35-31 to secure the school’s first football national championship in 35 years.
The question now is this: Can Georgia do the same thing? Can the Bulldogs finish first after finishing second? And would they need to go through Bama again, whether that be in the SEC Championship Game or the playoffs?
The answer is yes. And Clemson stands as precedent.
Larry Williams is in the perfect position talk about the similarities and differences in Clemson’s latest run of success and the one that many are predicting for the Bulldogs. Williams once covered UGA athletics as a newspaper beat reporter. Today, he is a senior writer at TigerIllustrated.com, the Rivals website dedicated to covering Clemson. He also wrote a book chronicling the Tigers’ 2015 season, Clemson Tough: Guts and Glory Under Dabo Swinney.
Williams said what Georgia did in 2017 and in the National Championship Game in particular is reminiscent of Clemson’s 2015-16 run. And, lest we forget, the Tigers were in the College Football Playoff again after last season.
“It was nothing like Georgia experienced with the officiating; that’s a big difference,” Williams said with a laugh. “There’s reason for Georgia fans to continue to be ticked off for the next few weeks and years, really. It was nothing like that for Clemson. But after the initial devastation of how close they came, the (2015) season still retained that sort of magical quality and the fans and the team came away thinking, ‘Wow, we were right there on college football’s biggest stage.’ ”
To this point, Georgia has matched Clemson only in terms of losing to Bama in the title game. The key now is getting back into the playoffs for a second consecutive run. And that’s much easier said than done.
To start with, the Bulldogs lost to graduation or to the NFL draft 11 players who started against Alabama in the CFP final in Atlanta. Seven of those players come from the defensive side of the ball, including Butkus Award-winning linebacker Roquan Smith.
But if it’s any consolation, so did Clemson. The Tigers lost their top two defensive ends, who were first- and second-round NFL draft choices, a couple of interior defensive linemen, their starting inside linebacker, their top cornerback and both safeties.
“They lost a ton of talent,” Williams said. “They just sort of reloaded because they had been recruiting so well.”
Sound familiar? Georgia has been recruiting exceptionally well under coach Kirby Smart. In fact, if one puts any stock in recruiting rankings, the Bulldogs are recruiting even better than Clemson did in its lead-up to three consecutive playoff berths.
The Tigers finished 11th, ninth and 16th in the 247Sports composite team recruiting rankings in the three years leading up to winning the national championship. That’s an average of 12th. Georgia has posted recruiting classes ranked first, third and sixth in the last three seasons, an average of 3.3.
“We can talk all we want about the motivation and the intangibles and all that stuff. Really, it’s about the horses,” Williams said. “Clemson beat Alabama [in January 2017] because they had Deshaun Watson and Mike Williams and Jordan Leggett and Wayne Gallman. They just put playmakers on the opposite side of the ball, and that’s what it takes. That’s why they couldn’t beat [Bama] the third time.”
That talent infusion is why everybody is pointing to the Bulldogs to repeat as SEC East champions in 2018. But that’s just part of the equation.
Williams pointed to the motivation of opposition as another obstacle that must be overcome.
Clemson managed to repeat as ACC champions and make it back into the playoffs, but it wasn’t easy. Clemson struggled early in the 2016 season. The Tigers barely beat Auburn, had to fight like mad to beat Troy in their own stadium and lost to Pittsburgh. They squeaked by Louisville and Florida State, and Virginia Tech, although a heavy underdog, gave Clemson all it could handle in the ACC Championship Game.
“It was kind of a struggle for them all year,” Williams said. “I remember one of their coaches telling me that they were adjusting to that target on their chest. That’s something that Georgia is going to have to deal with and experience as well. Clemson in ’15 and Georgia’s season last year both had that sort of magical quality; they were doing a lot of things for the first time. It’s just a different deal when everybody you’re playing watched you play in that championship game.”
Georgia is proud to be in the position to wear that target. And with the pedigree of athlete Smart has brought to Athens during these last three recruiting classes, it’s one the Bulldogs could wear for a long time.