ATHENS – Georgia fans should not have awakened forlorn on Tuesday. There is no reason to be depressed about Clemson’s national championship win over Alabama in the College Football Playoff on Monday in Tampa, Fla. If anything, it should be encouraging.
The Tigers knocked off mighty Alabama 35-31 late Monday night. It will go down as one of the greatest championship games in history. It certainly was one of the best I’ve ever watched. Quarterback Deshaun Watson threw a 2-yard touchdown pass to Hunter Renfrow with one second remaining to score the come-from-behind victory. In an instant, a program that lay dormant since last winning a national championship in 1981 was unleashed in pandemonium.
This could happen for Georgia. Clemson stands as Exhibit A that it can.
These schools sit 73 miles apart. Both are agriculturally-based colleges that are situated in non-urban settings. The Tigers are under the leadership of Dabo Swinney, a first-time head coach who received the bulk of his training as an assistant coach at Alabama. His resume looks remarkably like the one carried by Georgia’s Kirby Smart.
Sure, they’re different. Smart is defense-oriented, while Swinney is decidedly offensive-minded. And I don’t know that you’ll see Smart dancing a funky jig on the sideline. But after watching his goofy pose with the Chick-fil-A Kickoff’s leather helmet, give him enough to celebrate and there’s no telling what one might see out of him.
I’ve heard and read a lot of complaints from the UGA fan base about Clemson’s Watson being from Gainesville and going unrecruited by Georgia. This is simply untrue. I know because I sat there and watched former UGA offensive coordinator Mike Bobo sit next to Watson at a Georgia basketball game, chewing his ear off throughout the contest. The Bulldogs offered Watson a scholarship in the winter of his junior year at Gainesville High. But at that point, Watson was simply too far down the road with the Tigers, who deserve credit for getting after him so hard so early, and Georgia was well down the road with Brice Ramsey. As stark as that comparison looks now, it didn’t look that way then. Those things happen.
And you know who else recruited Watson and didn’t get him? Alabama.
To be clear, Watson was the difference-maker for Clemson. I’m not telling anybody who watched the game or watched Watson these last three years anything they didn’t already know. He was the one player for which there was no peer on either sideline. Same thing last year when the same two teams played for the national championship. The Tigers simply ran out of time in Glendale. They had but a second to spare this time, and Watson is a once-a-generation player.
The rest of Clemson’s team makeup is not that dramatically different than what you see with regularity at UGA. Receiver Mike Williams (8 catches, 94 yards, 1 TD) was certainly an extraordinary playmaker in the game and all season for the Tigers. A South Carolina native, he was ranked 35th at his position and 238th in the nation when he inked with Clemson. Leading tackler Ben Boulware was a bit of a bigger deal in recruiting, ranked 183rd nationally and eighth at his position. But at the end of his career, he was the heart and soul of the Tigers’ defense. Hunter Renfrow, he of 2 TD catches, is a former walk-on.
So Clemson and Swinney have provided the formula for Georgia. And the Bulldogs’ fan base would be well-advised to take note of the timeline. The Tigers went just 19-15 those first three years. But they won 10 or more every year since, including 28-2 these last two, when the roster brimmed with upperclassmen.
I honestly don’t think it should take Georgia as long to get to a similar place, not with the way Smart is recruiting. Make what you will about recruiting rankings — the Dogs are currently No. 3 nationally — but it is a game of odds and the more highly-rated acquisitions one makes, the better the chance they’ll be able to help you.
As ever, it’s about development and chemistry, two areas on which Swinney and the Tigers get very high marks. We don’t know that yet about Smart and his staff, but we do know it’s a point of heavy emphasis. He certainly knows what great players look like and where to get them. Coaching them up is what we’ll have to wait and see on.
Probably the biggest similarity I could point to is the level of emotional investment of these coaches. Swinney is certainly special in that regard, and I believe Smart to be the same way. Say what you will about the way this first season went for him and the Bulldogs. But at the end of it, you had four high-profile upperclassmen make the decision to return for their senior seasons and a pied-piper line of elite prospects queuing up to come on board.
No, I think Clemson’s victory is a positive omen for a program like Georgia. It stands as shining light up on yonder hill. The Bulldogs would be well-advised to see it and to follow it.