ATLANTA — The realization hit Kirby Smart hard after his Georgia team came so close to snatching the Bulldogs’ first national championship in 37 years.
The Bulldogs battled — and battled hard — before dropping a tough 26-23 overtime loss to Alabama after leading for most of the game.
And as the Georgia coach sat in the interview room surrounded by foundation players Sony Michel and Nick Chubb, he made it clear that the Bulldogs’ first trip to the College Football Playoff is only the beginning.
“I can’t say enough about the remarkable senior class. These two young men sitting next to me, they meant more to Georgia than yards,” said Smart, whose Bulldogs finished 13-2 in his second season running the program. “A lot of heart and soul. A lot of fire. But in overtime, we didn’t finish when we had to and Alabama did.
“Give them credit, but I think everybody can see that Georgia’s going to be a force to be reckoned with. I’m very proud of this team and this university, and we’re not going anywhere.’
Smart’s assurance is built on a combination of factors. The Bulldogs have a strong returning nucleus, keyed by freshman quarterback Jake Fromm. And when the nation’s best 2018 recruiting class is added, the future looks extremely bright for Smart’s program.
The Bulldogs will need leadership to go along with all of that talent. That’s why Smart will be looking for leaders such as he has had with Michel and Chubb. A likely candidate, should he return, is junior linebacker Roquan Smith. The Bulldogs’ Butkus Award winner will have to decide by early next week whether he will declare for the NFL draft.
“The standard’s been set by these young men right here,” Smart said. “And if we have that kind of leadership, there’s no doubt. The sky’s the limit, because these guys are hungry. I just hope the younger class doesn’t take it for granted that it’s just going to happen. You’ve got to make it happen, and they’ve got to believe that.”
Michel, who finished with a game-high 98 rushing yards, said the development of the Georgia program under Smart has only started.
“We try to set the standard high so the younger guys know where to take it from here,” he said. “We fell short [Monday], and I think guys that’s coming back understand what it’s going to take plus more to get back here.”