5 takeaways from historic Peach Bowl comeback, glance into Georgia football future
ATHENS — The biggest fourth-quarter comeback of the Kirby Smart Coaching Era will not be remembered as the prettiest, but it was certainly the grittiest.
— Georgia Football (@GeorgiaFootball) January 2, 2021
The Bulldogs beat a previously undefeated Cincinnati team 24-21 on Friday in the Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl, rallying from being down 21-10 in the fourth quarter.
It took heroics from the offense, defense and special teams in the final minutes. This, along with the maturation and adaptability of newly plugged-in players like Latavious Brini, Tyrique Stevenson and Xavier Truss, right before our eyes as the game progressed.
The national view from 10,000 feet: Georgia solidifying its status as an SEC powerhouse and, for the fourth-straight year, a Top 10 team.
The New Year’s Six Bowl win also checks off a few other boxes:
• UGA senior class ties for winningest (44 victories) in program history with 2005, 2019 groups.
• 24th straight bowl appearance, longest active streak in CFB, dates back to Smart’s junior year (1997). UGA went 5-6 in 1996.
• Smart’s 10th win over a Top 10 team, his record now a sterling 10-6 in such high-profile matchups.
Here are three other takeaways from the Peach Bowl win:
1. New hero
The transition from Rod to Pod is complete, there’s a new walk-on kicker folk-hero in town after previously unheralded sophomore walk-on Jack Podlesny drilled a 53-yard field goal with 3 seconds left to lift UGA to the Peach Bowl victory.
It was Podlesny’s third field goal of the day. His first, a 37-yarder, narrowly slid inside the upright to give the Bulldogs a short-lived 10-7 lead.
Podlesny said it was the first-game-winning kick of his football career.
“I told coach before the game, I was good inside 55, 54 yards,” Podlesny said. “Our offense drove. Once we kind of got there, I tried to slow my breathing because I didn’t want to rush anything, I didn’t want to overcompensate for anything.”
2. Opt-outs sigh of relief
A slew of opt-outs nearly cost Georgia the game, which is to be expected when one considers the great talent of the players who skipped the game to prepare for the Senior Bowl and NFL Draft.
Middle linebacker Monty Rice was another team captain sitting out, and one couldn’t help but think Rice would have plugged the middle on Cincinnati’s 79-yard run up the middle.
The Bulldogs had 10 former starters out in all, with James Cook missing on account of the death of his father, and other players hurt or transferred away.
If Georgia had lost the game it would have been easy for some to point fingers and not forget.
Instead, projected first-round NFL Draft pick and bowl game opt-in, Azeez Ojulari, came up with a three-sack performance that raised his draft stock and won him the game’s Defensive MVP honors.
3. Mighty momentum
Georgia brings a four-game win streak into the offseason and a renewed sense of confidence in its offense. UGA has shown the sort of passing game it takes to compete for championships.
“Everybody believes in momentum,” Smart said, analyzing how the 5 or so feet Podlesny’s kick determined the final outcome of the season.
“I would not feel any different, but the perception would certainly be different all based off of 2 more yards or less, however far he cleared it by.”
But there was personnel momentum, too.
Quarterback JT Daniels moved to 4-0 as the starter with a 26-of-38, 392-yard passing performance that featured an 8-play, game-winning drive from his own 20 with no timeouts.
Daniels deflected praise to Kenny McIntosh’s three catches on the game-winning drive and Podlesny’s big leg after the game, providing a sense of offensive unity heading into the offseason.
4. Pending transactions
Smart’s coaching staff has undergone changes every year, and there’s no reason to believe this offseason will be any different.
But there will also be more players coming and going into and out of the NCAA transfer portal.
The Bulldogs have a February signing day ahead, but 20 early signees are already on board.
Smart said he looks to add another defensive back and defensive lineman in February, but it wouldn’t be surprising to see Georgia land a cornerback via the NCAA transfer portal.
The revitalized passing game, with Daniels under center, might also attract the sort of special talent LSU transfer Arik Gilbert could bring should he come home and play for Georgia.
5. Kirby’s Mental agility
Kirby Smart has used the following quote for at least one coaching clinic; it’s one most often attributed to Charles Darwin:
“It’s not the strongest of the species that survives, nor the most intelligent that survives. It is the one that is most adaptable to change.”
Smart has also said, “if it ain’t broke, make it better,” and he has pledged to be on a quest for constant improvement.
But talking about a willingness to change and doing so are two different things, as there’s also something to be said for “staying the course.”
Fact is, coaches can apply axioms to fit whatever direction they choose to go.
There’s a fine line between it all. What separates the good from great coaches is knowing where to draw the line, and then when to cross the line.
Smart has put together a championship-level program, the pieces in place, and now it’s just a matter of catching the right breaks and trusting the inner circle assistants around him.
Before you know it, Georgia will start next season as a preseason Top 5 battling Clemson in its season-opening game, the confidence of last Friday’s comeback win in its back pocket.