Georgia’s storybook 2017 season ended in a way that was all too painfully familiar for Dawgs fans — another heartbreaking last-second loss to Alabama.
Maybe that’s why, as my son and I trudged out of Mercedes-Benz Stadium on Monday night after the game and rode MARTA out of downtown Atlanta, what I saw on my fellow fans’ faces was a sort of drained resignation.
It might be hard to focus on, the morning after, but it still was a wonderful, historic season for the Dawgs.
Freshman quarterback Jake Fromm had an up-and-down night Monday against Alabama. (Hyosub Shin/AJC)
So many marvelous memories. The win at Notre Dame. Destroying Florida. A major revenge win over Auburn to take UGA’s first SEC championship in a dozen years. A trip to the College Football Playoff that saw the Dawgs win possibly the greatest Rose Bowl ever.
And, playing for the national championship.
The result of game on Monday was like a dagger in the heart, but Dawgs fans can take solace in this: Georgia had a better season than any other football program in the country, save for perennial powerhouse Alabama.
And, yet, the Dawgs could have won it all — nay, should have won it all.
Georgia dominated Alabama in the first two quarters of the game, although a stiff Tide defense kept the Dawgs from putting as much distance between them on the scoreboard as the halftime stats might have led you to expect.
Then, in the second half, the student got schooled by his former mentor, as Nick Saban showed Kirby Smart what it takes to win championships. You could have gathered every college football expert in the country together before that game and, if you’d asked them the chances of Saban benching Jalen Hurts halfway through the National Championship Game, I doubt you would have found any takers.
And, yet, that’s exactly what Saban did, pulling Hurts in favor of freshman QB Tua Tagovailoa. Now, that’s bold coaching.
Meanwhile, Smart and UGA offensive coordinator Jim Chaney went ultra conservative on offense from late in the third quarter on, trying in vain to eat clock against the Crimson Tide.
The result: Smart was outcoached by Saban, and Georgia was outscored 19-3 after establishing a 20-7 lead with 6:52 remaining in the third quarter.
It seems too easy to say the Dawgs “pulled a Falcons” with this collapse, but, having given up a 13-point lead in the third quarter, the comparison is apt.
Kirby Smart ended up getting outcoached by his former boss, Nick Saban. (Hyosub Shin/AJC)
Basically, three factors were key in the Dawgs letting the national championship slip away from them:
The first was obvious fatigue in the second half, particularly on defense. The Georgia defense just looked dog-tired from the latter half of the third quarter on, possibly an aftereffect of having played a draining two-overtime West Coast game a week earlier. All those missed tackles in the third and fourth quarters allowed the Tide to roar back into the game.
The second factor: the maddeningly inconsistent calls (or non-calls) by the Big 10 officiating crew. There were quite a few of them, but perhaps the turning point was a bad offsides call on a punt that was blocked by Georgia. Others included a blatant face-mask penalty by Bama that went uncalled, while Georgia got tagged for one; an uncalled personal foul by an out-of-control Tide defender who slapped Jake Fromm in the helmet after tackling him; and an uncalled false start on Calvin Ridley’s fourth-quarter Bama touchdown. USA Today’s Dan Wolken nailed it when he tweeted: “It will disappear into the ether everywhere but Georgia, but that officiating crew was really a disgrace. Missed obvious big calls.”
As my buddy Joel put it after the game: “Give us any one [of those calls], and we probably win. At least, some of the national media noticed, too. Cold comfort.”
But, even more hurtful to Georgia’s cause was the third factor: Smart and Chaney trying to sit on a lead against Bama — something that Saban disciple Smart should have known wasn’t a winning plan. Had the Dawgs kept their foot on the pedal in the third and fourth quarters, at the very least Georgia might have gotten in position for Rodrigo Blankenship’s big leg to put another 3 points on the board. If that had been the case, that missed field goal by Bama late in the game would have meant a loss for the Tide rather than overtime.
Georgia opened the game throwing, which loosened up the Bama defense and allowed the running game to gain a little traction against a big, fast Tide defense that generally smothers the run. But, once Bama started its comeback, Georgia seemed to lose its offensive mojo with unimaginative calls, sending Nick Chubb up the middle too many times against a defensive front that was hitting him before he could get to the line of scrimmage.
Chubb wound up with just 25 yards on 18 carries. If Georgia was going to try to run primarily late in the game, it probably would have been smarter to bounce it outside with the slashing Sony Michel, who had 98 yards on 14 carries and seemed to be the more effective half of Georgia’s running back tandem Monday night.
As for QB Fromm, he had an up-and-down night. He engineered some terrific third-down conversions in the first half, and he had a great pass to Mecole Hardman for an 80-yard touchdown in the second half. But, while Fromm finished 16 of 32 for 232 yards passing, he had 2 picks and generally didn’t look as sharp as in some earlier games.
Part of that was a tough Tide defense, but Fromm’s second interception of the night, where he bounced the ball off an Alabama player’s helmet, was an ill-advised throw and was particularly damaging, as it negated Georgia’s own pick on the previous play.
Meanwhile, if that was junior Roquan Smith’s final game with the Bulldogs (hope not), he went out spectacularly, with a career-high 13 tackles.
Another great game was had by Hardman, who scored another touchdown in the first half as he took the snap in the wilddawg, faked a handoff and ran it in. And Riley Ridley stepped up big in the receiving corps, outshining his Bama brother.
Rodrigo Blankenship was money in the bank for Georgia. (Alyssa Pointer/AJC)
Finally, I can’t say enough about Blankenship, who by season’s end was money in the bank with his kicking. Giving that kid a scholarship the week of the Notre Dame game was the best thing Smart did this season.
Overall, it was a disappointing night for UGA and its fans, but Dawgs fans should keep their heads up. As Smart said after the game, “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.”
I’ve been following the Georgia Bulldogs all my life and have been attending their football games most of that time, having grown up in Athens. But, I’d never had the opportunity to watch them play for a national championship in person ― until Monday night. I’m hopeful I’ll get another chance if Smart stays the course.
As I posted on Facebook Monday afternoon before we left for the stadium: “This season already has surpassed my expectations, and forever will be one of my favorites, regardless of how the game against Bama turns out.
“From Nick to Sony to Jake to Roquan to Rodrigo, this also is one of my favorite bunch of Bulldogs. Proud to say I’m a Bulldog, born and bred.”
Nothing about the loss Monday night changed any of that.
What about you? I’d love to hear your thoughts on the championship game, and on the season as a whole. Email me at email@example.com or feel free to comment below.