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(Bob Andres/bandres@ajc.com)
Georgia's sideline wrupts as Mecole Hardman (4) goes 80 yards for a touchdown with a Jake Fromm pass on third-and-11.

Bulldogs try to process Bama slamming door on their magical season

Chip Towers

ATLANTA — Every couple of minutes or so, you’d hear the thwacks. That’s my best description. Actually, I’m not exactly sure what to call them. Bangs or cracks maybe? Certainly not booms or clangs.

Whatever you’d call it, it was the sound of slamming metal lockers. But it wasn’t like the Georgia Bulldogs were destroying the home locker room at Mercedes-Benz Stadium. They were just setting down their helmets a little hard, throwing down their shoes, shutting a door little more firmly than necessary. Controlled anger, I’d call it.

That’s what the Bulldogs were feeling in the minutes immediately following their 26-23 overtime loss to Alabama in the national championship game Monday night. Leading 20-7 at one point and having the Crimson Tide right where they wanted them in overtime, Georgia finally gave up a play it couldn’t come back from.

We’ll get back to that one play in a moment. In the meantime, it’s important to know that is all it was — one play. That’s what the national championship came down to for Georgia in Year Two under Kirby Smart. One. Stinking. Play.

But it doesn’t completely undo all those plays, not in this game and not in this season. This is the part where I’m going to tell you that Georgia wasn’t expected to be here, that it is way ahead of schedule (a notion Smart hates to acknowledge but might admit now that the season is over). But it’s the truth.

Don’t let this bitter disappointment block out all those wonderful moments you witnessed this season. Sony Michel’s runs in the Rose Bowl and Davin Bellamy’s sack/strip against Auburn, Terry Godwin’s miraculous touchdown catch at Notre Dame. It was, in many ways, a magical and unforgettable season.

“The standard has been set by these men right here,” Smart said with Nick Chubb and Michel sitting to his sides. “I can’t put into words what these seniors meant.”

The issue going forward is all those seniors will be moving on, a couple of juniors as well. So there’s going to a certain about of rebuild to be done next season.

But for the returnees, as talented a bunch as Georgia has ever assembled, the takeaways from 2017 will be invaluable.

The Bulldogs know they have a quarterback and line around which to build, and some pretty good backs as well. Seems like they have an awesome kicker. And the defense, well, there will be a lot of opportunities from some highly-touted young prospects to find their way on the field.

More important than that, though, is Georgia has learned it can believe in Smart. The Bulldogs know now that Smart can get them here. They just have to trust that he can get them up and over that last hurdle.

“It definitely shows where Georgia football is heading,” Fromm said. “We’ve seen the way these seniors have led this team. They definitely set the standard. So we hope to be back next year.”

Alabama hope to, also. Plans to, really. And it looks like it might have the goods again.

Tua Tagovailoa, Alabama’s backup quarterback who came off the bench to lead the Tide to the come-from-behind victory, is a freshman like Fromm. Fromm’s on a first-name basis with him because they shared time in all those elite prospect camps.

So Bama has a pretty good young quarterback, too. Two of them, in fact, counting Jalen Hurts. So this probably won’t be the last time we see these two facing off in big games.

But that’s why what happened in the end is so disappointing. That’s why things were getting slammed in the Georgia locker room. The mistakes that were made should never have happened with such a veteran defense and secondary for the Bulldogs. And not against such a rookie quarterback.

Facing second-and-26 after getting sacked for a 16-yard loss on Bama’s first play of extra time, Tagovailoa reared back and hit a wide open DeVonta Smith streaking down the right sideline for a 41-yard touchdown that provided the winning margin. It was so quick and precise and devastating that it took your breath away.

The immediate thought was, what happened? How’d that guy get so open?

This is always the answer to that question: Blown coverage. And that’s what it was.

Georgia was in a two-deep zone, as one would expect in such a situation. The idea is to have your safeties back deep on both hashes and not to let anybody behind you. Neither happened.

For whatever reason, veteran safety Dominick Sanders, who has played in more games than anybody on Georgia’s defense, drifted toward the middle of the field. Perhaps he was following the eyes of Tagovailoa, who first looked to the right.

Meanwhile, Smith blew by a seemingly helpless Malkom Parrish. The senior cornerback had a horrible game, especially after halftime. But the idea in that situation is just to slow down his man, to jam him or least get in his way. He did neither.

Back in the Bulldogs’ dressing room, the lockers of Parrish and Sanders sat empty save for the street clothes they hadn’t put on yet. Along with fellow senior Lorenzo Carter, they were hanging in the back of the showers, lettint the clock on the mandatory open locker room tick down and refusing to come out and face the questions.

They needn’t have handled that way. Nobody was looking to rip them. It’s not shameful to make a mistake or admit that one was made. It’s OK to say you did your best. Parrish was in the game and on the field Monday because he was the Bulldogs’ best option at that position. Sanders has made so many great plays for Georgia that he should never hang his head for failing make one this once.

Alas, they were just hurt. Everybody in the Bulldogs’ locker room was hurting. There’s certainly nothing wrong with going 13-2 and playing the most regal program in college football to the last snap in the last game of the season. And maybe they’ll feel a little better when the sun comes up Tuesday.

For the moment, though, all the Bulldogs could do was slam a few doors. And that’s all right.