Georgia football-winners-losers-2019 SEC championship game
12/7/19 - Atlanta - Georgia Bulldogs players walk from the field after a 37-10 SEC Football Championship game loss to the LSU Tigers at Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta. Hyosub Shin / hyosub.shin@ajc.com

Riley: On Georgia football in the 2019 SEC Championship Game, grief and getting better

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Georgia football has come a long way since the 2019 SEC Championship Game

The last time Georgia played in the SEC championship game, Kirby Smart and his team suffered a 27-point thrashing at the hands of LSU. It’s the second-most lopsided loss for Smart since he took over the Georgia program. It was the nadir for Georgia in what had been a difficult 2019 season, particularly on the offensive side of the ball.

The result of that loss proved to be a turning point for the program. The loss is one of the many reasons why Georgia became the best team in the country and enters as a favorite against Alabama in the SEC championship game this weekend.

In the nearly two years since that game, I’ve found myself often looking back on that date. Not because of the Georgia loss or how things have change. I’ve thought a lot about it because it was the worst day of my life.

Minutes after walking out of the Georgia locker room, I learned one of my best friends, Jackson Smith, had suddenly died. He was 27 years old, the same age I am now.

I’ve written about Jackson before and the immense impact he had on so many lives. In the nearly two years since he’s passed, I’ve thought about him, that day and all the feelings that surround it often. I’ve come to realize all of that is called grief.

Related: Riley: What the Alabama-Georgia football game means to me

Grief is something you carry with you. Yes, it’s heavy and it’s difficult. At times it overwhelms you. But the grief you carry, in this circumstance that I carry, becomes a part of you. For all the sadness you feel with grief, it is a sign that you still live with the cherished moments of those you have lost. That is a far greater feeling to possess than the half-remembered memories over those that have passed on.

For Smart and the older members of this Georgia team, December 7, 2019, was a difficult day. For all that Georgia had built and accomplished, that defeat showed Georgia still had a long way to go to become truly great. Or as Smart would say this season, elite.

“Well, number one, the team we played that day was a really good football team, probably one of the best that I’ve seen, and I’ve been in the SEC for 18 or 19 years,” Smart said.

That LSU team went on to win a national championship, ushering in the idea that you needed to have a generational offense to win a national title. Just over a month after the loss to LSU, Georgia bought into that idea in some way, as it swapped out offensive coordinator James Coley for Todd Monken.

Coley was an excellent recruiter for the Georgia program but his first season showed the Bulldogs needed to be better. An offense with Jake Fromm, Andrew Thomas, D’Andre Swift, George Pickens and others scored just 10 points against LSU.

This season under Monken’s stewardship, Georgia averages 40.7 points per game. That is the most of any team in the Smart era. Georgia also happens to have a generational defense that gave up just 83 points in the first 12 games of the season.

The Bulldogs look and feel much more like that LSU team as opposed to the Alabama team they play on Saturday.

“We’ve improved. I think we’ve recruited well,” Smart said. “I think our kids are playing with confidence. I think there’s a lot of things outside of just the Xs and Os of football that this team has really connected, and they’ve done a great job from a leadership standpoint.”

One of the things I’ve come to learn about grief is that you’re not doing it alone. We all grieve in our own ways but when you lose someone who touched as many lives as Jackson, you form even deeper connections with the people who shared similar relationships.

In learning to live with Jackson’s death, I’m often reminded of the fact that he didn’t just have a big impact on my life but so many others. I know that I am not the only one who misses him dearly or would give anything to just get one more big hug from him.

Those connections, those friendships that I have with those people are made stronger by the bonds we have with Jackson. I know that would mean a lot to him.

Connection is a word this Georgia team has used often. It’s right up there with elite and ascending in terms of buzz words that have been thrown out at nearly every media availability this season.

It sounds cliché but there’s a real conviction when the players talk about how much closer this team is compared to the one that stepped on the field against LSU. A bond forged by the defeats to LSU, to Alabama and to Florida last year. By offseason team runs in Sanford Stadiums and sharing their reasons for why they play such a violent and unforgiving game.

They get the sense that they are playing for something bigger than themselves.