ATHENS — In Georgia’s perfect dream, this isn’t near the end of a season but the beginning of a new reality.
An SEC championship.
A player on the national landscape.
A man guarding the door of the VIP room for the postseason greeting you: “Welcome, sir. May I take your coat?”
“This shows the direction this program is going in,” Georgia outside linebacker Lorenzo Carter said. “If people think this is the first and last time it’s going to be like this, they’re sadly mistaken. Coach Smart, just him being here and seeing what he’s done so far, he’s not going to settle at all.”
The Bulldogs are making their maiden voyage into the college football playoffs and they are in position to play for a national championship post-SEC title game for the first time since 1982. They face Oklahoma in the rarified air of the Rose Bowl on New Year’s Day. Should they win, they would face the winner of the Clemson-Alabama semifinal in the national championship game in Mercedes Benz Stadium.
Georgia — the campus, the program and its legion of fans — has thirsted for this moment and this acceptance. It has been the ultimate tease of a national program for the better part of 35 years.
So the obvious question: Is this season an accurate barometer for where the program is headed under coach Kirby Smart, or is it an aberration?
We can’t possibly know the answer today, but there are indications this season will not be the lone high-water mark. Smart has raised the expectation level and mandated a consistency and work ethic that the program has periodically lacked in the past. That’s not meant to be a knock on Smart’s predecessor, Mark Richt. It’s just that sometimes a new voice with a new blueprint and new mandates are needed. It was time for a different perspective.
This is a unique team. The collective decision by four players – running backs Nick Chubb and Sony Michel and linebackers Carter and Davin Bellamy – to return for their senior seasons, in concert with the rise of linebacker Roquan Smith, has given the Bulldogs a unique leadership group, as well as extraordinary talent.
But it goes beyond that.
“This is the real thing,” nose tackle John Atkins said. “They’ve got a recipe now so the guys who follow us know what it takes.”
“Leadership. Physicality. Composure. That’s what they’ve been preaching the whole year.”
Several players this season have referenced problems during Smart’s first season, when the team finished 8-5 and suffered some horrible losses. Chubb said the team was only “half in” and that some players “would just kind of look for days off.” The “everybody is buying in now” narrative actually has some substance to it in 2017.
When asked what changed, Chubb said, “Practice, and just the mindset of guys willing to work.”
“Just winning,” Michel said. “We have the mindset of winning. We try to practice like winners and we try to build that into our culture.”
That standards tends to filter down to younger players. It’s why certain great programs, specifically Alabama, tend to remain at an elite level year after year, even with a revolving door of players.
Smart also recognizes the danger of this new success. The Dogs have had praise heaped on them since winning the SEC championship over Auburn more than two weeks ago. The key to postseason success is how quickly everybody can push the reset button.
Smart spoke with a hoarse voice at his Monday press conference, worn down not just from the everyday grind of coaching and recruiting’s early signing period but from yelling at his players. Imploring might be a better description than yelling.
“I’m trying to make sure they understand that you can’t acknowledge the pats on the back,” he said. “You can’t embrace that. You can’t feel good about yourself. Because obviously in their hometown, their communities, in the media, winning the SEC Championship is a great honor and they’ll have that for a long time. It will be on these walls for a long time. But they can’t be satisfied. I think that is what makes the difference in the playoffs: How you approach this layoff and the perspective in which you view it.”
Coaches are belaboring the grind of early signing period, which is meant to minimize some of the chaos, flip-flopping and shenanigans associated with national signing day. Smart shouldn’t be worried. Georgia has always had a pipeline to great players and the Dogs’ SEC title and mere presence in the playoffs has elevated it in the eyes of young players.
“I’m excited for Georgia, just to be in this position right now,” Michel said. “I’m excited to set the tone for Georgia football.”
This could be the Bulldogs’ new reality.