ATHENS – Woodruff Practice Fields sit empty and wet. The Butts-Mehre Complex is unusually quiet and inactive. Georgia players are busy preparing for and taking exams. On Friday, several of them will walk in fall semester graduation ceremonies.
All the while, another football challenge is looming. Three weeks from now, the No. 5 Bulldogs (11-2) will be teeing it up against No. 15 Texas (9-4) in the Allstate Sugar Bowl at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome in New Orleans. Meanwhile, the anguish of another excruciatingly close loss to No. 1 Alabama still lingers.
The question on everybody’s mind is whether the Bulldogs can shake the grief and misery of that disappointment and refocus on the challenge of defeating a storied opponent in the rather lofty consolation of a New Year’s Six bowl game.
To that, the Georgia players offer a resounding, “hell, yes.”
“For sure,” junior wideout Mecole Hardman said. “We’re not going to go out there and just let anybody beat us. We’re definitely going to have motivation to play because we’ve got to get taste out of our mouths somehow. So, somebody’s got to feel us, and they will.”
Added Riley Ridley: “Most definitely. This is Georgia football. No matter what happens, we never give up. We love football. That’s what we’re here for. We play for each other.”
Undoubtedly, the Bulldogs will head to New Orleans with good intentions. That the Sugar Bowl has become a consolation prize speaks to the heights to which Kirby Smart has raised the standards for Georgia football in three short years.
But it’d understandable if the Bulldogs’ found their focus was a bit clouded considering the depth of their disappointment not 10 days ago. After building an impressive lead against a team called one of the best in Alabama football history and having an opportunity to expand it three scores in the third quarter, Georgia was outscored 21-0 over the final 18 minutes of play on the way to a 35-28 loss.
Central to the outcome was a controversial decision to attempt a fake punt with the game tied with three minutes remaining. So, there was the added pang of how the Bulldogs lost on top of playing toe-to-toe with the nation’s No. 1 team.
Then there were the postseason implications. Georgia played Alabama so well for so long, it proved to any remaining doubters it was indeed among the top four teams in college football this year. That should have been enough for the selection committee to include the Bulldogs in the College Football Playoff for a second straight season. But ultimately they chose Oklahoma, a one-loss Big 12 champion, over the two-loss SEC runners-up.
That added a layer of disappointment the day after the conference championship loss. But Georgia players insist there will no lingering grief.
“We’re not hanging our heads,” freshman cornerback Tyson Campbell said. “We know we played our best and we’re just ready to move forward. We’ve got to focus on what’s ahead of us now.”
Said junior tight end Isaac Nauta: “It’s definitely not a lost season for us. We have another game to play and we’re looking forward to it. We’re looking forward to getting better throughout the month of December and winning the next one.”
Georgia is already drawing comparisons to Alabama’s 2008 team, which entered the SEC Championship Game undefeated and ranked No. 1 only to lose to No. 2 Florida 31-20. The Gators went on to play for the BCS title and the No. 4-ranked Crimson Tide then lost to Utah 31-17 in the Sugar Bowl.
Lack of motivation was considered Alabama’s primary undoing that New Year’s Day in New Orleans. Georgia coach Kirby Smart, who was defensive coordinator for that 2008 Alabama team, admitted that the Tide “didn’t play as well as we probably should have.” But he also said this year’s Georgia team is very different that one.
“This is a much younger team than any of those Bama teams,” Smart said of the Bulldogs, whose roster is comprised 68 percent of freshmen and sophomores. “A lot of these kids, this will be their first or second time in a big-time bowl environment. We’re still getting accustomed to that.”
No, this appears to be a Georgia team that still feels it has much to prove to the rest of the college football world. The same chip the Bulldogs carried on their collective shoulders into the SEC Championship Game will be making the trip to New Orleans.
While a national championship is not in the cards this year, Georgia very much wants to validate its distinction as one the best teams in the country in 2018.
“We can’t hang our head about (losing to Bama),” Hardman said. “We know we had the game; we know we played great. It just didn’t go our way. But I think everybody knows we’re one of the best four teams.”
One more decisive win surely would remove any doubt.
DawgNation’s Sugar Bowl Coverage
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- Georgia football coach Kirby Smart believes Bulldogs will bounceback
- Some interesting Sugar Bowl numbers via Brandon Adams
- Thorpe Award winner Deandre Baker will play in Sugar Bowl
- Mel Tucker ready for a new challenge as Colorado head coach
- Georgia football double-digit favorite over Texas in Sugar Bowl
- Texas named Georgia football opponent in 2019 Sugar Bowl
- CFP Chairman explains why Georgia football was left out of CFB Playoffs
- 3 Georgia football players get Senior Bowl invites
- Mel Tucker will be hard to replace when he leaves Georgia football