ATHENS, Ga. — The Georgia football dream season ended so suddenly, and in such unlikely fashion, it’s still hard to grasp.
Second-and-26. Seven months later.
“Everybody wants to talk about that …. ,” Bulldogs coach Kirby Smart said, not blinking an eye when the back-breaking play was asked about at SEC Media Day in Atlanta.
“It’s not like I have nightmares about it. I think we grow from it, the entire season was a learning experience.”
Indeed, many believe Georgia football has elevated to be on equal ground with the Crimson Tide.
For now, however, Alabama remains on top of the college football world.
The Bulldogs’ defense seemingly had Alabama quarterback Tua Tagovailoa right where they wanted him in the College Football Playoff Championship Game.
Georgia was up 23-20 after opening overtime with Rodrigo Blankenship’s 51-yard field goal.
When Jonathan Ledbetter sacked Tagovailoa on first down on the Tide’s ensuing offensive series, Bulldogs fans rocked Mercedes Benz Stadium with cheers.
Everyone knew Alabama had to throw the football into Georgia’s well-drilled secondary to have any chance at getting back into field goal range.
Even then, the Tide’s field goal game was so shaky, no one in crimson would be feeling too comfortable.
But then, the Hawaiian Punch, an oil painting moment in Crimson Tide history like few others featuring a long distance connection from quarterback to receiver.
Tagovailoa, the freshman, expertly suckered Georgia senior safety Dominick Sanders by looking off his receiver before turning his attention and aim deep downfield to receiver Devonta Smith.
Smith, cruelly enough a one-time Bulldogs’ commit during the Mark Richt Era, caught the 41-yard touchdown pass in stride and the Alabama celebration was on, a 26-23 victory etched in the history books.
Smart said at the SEC Spring Meetings he would not allow the play to beat him twice, that there wasn’t time to dwell on it.
But second-and-26 will always be there, a part of Georgia football history.
For now, it’s a mysterious piece to a yet-to-be-determined puzzle.
Is that how close the Bulldogs will say they came to winning a national title during the Smart Era — however long it lasts?
Or will second-and-26 be known as the stepping stone that pushed the Georgia coaches and players to work that much harder, knowing just how close the program is to overtaking Alabama for national supremacy?
The Bulldogs players were asked about the play, over and over, during their SEC Media Day appearance.
It’s a play they’ll live with the rest of their lives.
“I knew we’d be asked about it here,” senior receiver Terry Godwin said, “but not this much.”
Ledbetter said the difficult nature of the loss fueled the team.
“When the game ended I was hurt, everybody was hurt, we worked hard, and we came up a little short,” Ledbetter said. “But we took a week off and everyone was grinding, back in the office.
“We’re here, we aren’t going anywhere, we were here before. We’re just cleaning some things up in the office, in the shop, and we’re going to get this thing clicking on all cylinders.”
Senior defensive back J.R. Reed agreed, indicating that fans needn’t worry about how the Georgia football players are handling the historic defeat.
“I think it definitely hurts the fan more than it hurts us,” Reed said. “We know what happened and there’s nothing you can do about it, so you just have to go on. You can’t watch the same play over and over.
“I watched (the title game) as many times as I watch a regular game, so maybe two or three times. It’s nothing I dwell on, we did a lot of good things in that game, we can’t hang the game on one play. You learn from the good things, and you learn from the bad things.”
Nick Saban advice
Alabama coach Nick Saban saw his team go through similar heartbreak the season before, losing in the national title game to Clemson on a last-second play.
“We said last year, `Don’t waste the feeling,’ “ Saban said, revealing the Tide’s offseason motivation. “They sure didn’t, the way they played tonight.”
Indeed, Alabama showed greater resolve with the game on the line, overcoming a Georgia team that was the more accomplished of the two having captured the SEC regular-season championship.
Now it’s the Bulldogs turn to show they can respond in championship manner, one game at a time.
“Obviously nobody in this locker room every wants to feel the way they do right now ever again,” Georgia QB Jake Fromm told the Red and Black after the title game. “That’s plenty of motivation for going back to work and being back next year and definitely being on the top side.”
Smart, a former Georgia player, understands the pain better than anyone else. But the Bulldogs’ third-year head coach also understands that poise, as much as passion, is key to another championship run.
“I don’t think you look back on it as a horror story,” Smart concluded. “You just take it and you go.”
Go time has arrive, Georgia football fall camp is underway.