ATHENS — Georgia’s Nick Chubb and Sony Michel sat in disbelief in chairs on the sideline as confetti rained down from the Mercedes-Benz Stadium roof in celebration of yet another Alabama national championship. An hour after the game, Malkom Parrish, Dominick Sanders and Lorenzo Carter hid out in the showers in the Bulldogs locker room, seeking refuge from the intruding press and their questions about what had just happened.
Nobody takes losses harder than the players and coaches who are directly involved in the competitions being waged. That certainly was the case for Georgia coach Kirby Smart and the players who participated in the 26-23 overtime loss to the Crimson Tide in the National Championship Game on Jan. 8.
That said, they also tend to get over losses quicker.
“A lot of the seniors have pro careers to look forward to,” said Janet Frick, a psychology professor at UGA. “And the players that are coming back, they have next season to get ready for. So everybody [involved] has something to look forward to.”
Indeed, unlike the fans, the players and coaches have something constructive they can do with their disappointment. They can use it as fuel for the future.
Clemson lost to Alabama in a very similar fashion to Georgia in the College Football Playoff final at the end of the 2015 season. The Tigers fell victim to a late onsides-kick call by coach Nick Saban on the way to a 45-40 defeat.
When the team reconvened for offseason workouts a month after the loss, Clemson coach Dabo Swinney told his players, “You can only eat an elephant one bite at a time.” It was a perfectly suited old euphemism having just played a powerhouse opponent with an elephant mascot.
And the next season, the Tigers defeated Alabama 35-31 to win the 2016 national championship.
“They were still dealing with the pain of losing at that point,” said Larry Williams, a senior writer for TigerIllustrated.com, who wrote the book Clemson Tough: Guts and Glory Under Dabo Swinney after the 2015 season.
“He told the story of that elephant. … After the initial devastation of losing to Alabama wore off, the season still retained a sort of magical quality and everybody realized, ‘Wow, we were right there on college football’s biggest stage.’ I think very quickly it turned into motivation for the team.”
Smart hopes to do the same thing. And he’s already done it, to some extent. He and his coaching staff hit the recruiting trail with a vengeance and eventually finished with the No. 1-ranked recruiting class in the country. Many of the recruits the Bulldogs signed chose Georgia over Alabama.
And now Smart once again is calling for UGA fans to pack out Sanford Stadium for the G-Day Game (April 21, 4 p.m.). Meanwhile, he’s having signs and videos posted throughout the Butts-Mehre football complex to remind the players of how close they came and what it took to get there.
Likewise, Georgia’s outgoing players have encouraged their successors to take the baton from them and cross the finish line next time.
“We try to set the standard high so the younger guys know where to take it from here,” senior tailback Sony Michel said. “We fell short, but I think guys coming back understand what it’s going to take — plus more — to get back here.”
That’s the difference between fans and Georgia’s players and coaches — the latter have somewhere to direct their emotions.
“I remember an assistant coach telling me after [Clemson] won the national championship, ‘For 364 days we thought about losing and how close we came,’ ” Williams said. “That motivation came from that loss [in January 2016] and gave them an edge that they still had a year later. That was very much part of them not only winning it, but just getting there again.”
Georgia can only hope for the same.