LOS ANGELES – The Georgia football charter plane touched down at LAX just before 5 p.m. PT on Tuesday, as the sun was setting. Players packed on four buses, which got a police escort to their hotel and home for the next week.
Silently, Jake Fromm, Roquan Smith and others got out of their buses and headed to a side entrance, where they walked up stores that had logos of the Rose Bowl and Georgia. They saw a sign welcoming them to the College Football Playoff, then were asked to “watch your head” as they walked under a low overhang, with a sign featuring a picture of the late Mike “Big Dawg” Woods.
And so the Bulldogs arrived in Los Angeles for the program’s most important week in decades.
“Be where your feet are,” coach Kirby Smart had told his players last week, as a reminder not to be thinking about being in California until they got there. Well, now they’re here.
For the first time since 1960, a Georgia football team landed in Los Angeles for a game. The players flew together on a charter, as they did last year to Memphis but haven’t for most previous bowl games.
“We’re going to travel together,” star tailback Sony Michel said earlier this month. “We’re going to try to make it seem like an away game. The best situation as possible. And just try to make it another away game.”
Before this game, however, lies a week of preparation and intensely so. Last year before the Liberty Bowl Smart talked to his players about taking it seriously, that they’d remember whether they won or lost the game, not really the bowl week activities. This time, suffice to say, he doesn’t have to say it.
“This isn’t a trip where you go to enjoy the rides,” Smart said.
The practices in Los Angeles will feature intensive prep for Oklahoma, unlike back in Athens. That’s fairly normal and how it was handled at Alabama when Smart was an assistant with the Crimson Tide. The reasoning is coaches have found there’s only so much prep a team can do for one opponent, that six-to-seven practices is about the limit until it gets old for the players. So the bowl practice in Athens resembled a preseason camp atmosphere, back to the basics.
But the game plan largely has been in place before the team flew to L.A. Now it will be installed and practiced.
“It’s gonna be a great atmosphere, and it’s a huge honor to be playing in the Rose Bowl,” senior receiver Javon Wims said last week. “We’re gonna enjoy it.”
While Oklahoma comes in as the higher seed and thus will wear its home jerseys, Georgia arrived here as the slight favorite. The people setting the line a few hours away from here in Las Vegas have the Bulldogs favored by a couple of points, a reaction to the early money going towards them.
It’s a matchup of Oklahoma’s great offense vs. Georgia’s very good defense and Georgia’s solid offense against Oklahoma’s seemingly average defense. Fans of both would argue, with some merit, that both units are underrated. Throw in special teams (probably in Georgia’s favor) and intangibles (no obvious advantage, unless Oklahoma being in the playoff two years ago helps), and it looks like an intriguing matchup that could go any number of ways.
Georgia coaches have been busy straddling the fence between recruiting for the early signing period and playoff prep. Smart tried to downplay the potential pitfalls of that, saying the coaches always have had to manage recruiting in mid-December; the only difference is this time there was an actual signing period. Georgia players said they didn’t notice their coaches being distracted.
Whether this was all true or not, Georgia could be comforted in the knowledge that Oklahoma had to deal with it, too. Oklahoma signed 20 players last week, its class ranking No. 10th so far, compared to 23 players for Georgia’s top-ranked class.
Either way, recruiting has now taken a backseat.
This next week is all about winning a game, in order to try to win the final one.
“From a feeling standpoint, it just feels like we’re preparing for a bowl game because we haven’t really soaked it in yet,” Michel said. “But our mindset’s got to be we’ve got to have championship practices. We’ve got to make every practice count. Because we’re going into a big game against a good team.”