ATLANTA — Georgia football does not call Mercedes-Benz Stadium home, but there is a familiarity and valuable lessons have been learned in the building during the Kirby Smart Era.
The most obvious was among the most recent, last year when the Bulldogs lost to Alabama in the SEC Championship Game before re-centering and avenging that defeat in the CFP Championship Game in Indianapolis.
Georgia senior running back Kenny McIntosh, however, goes back even further in the Dawgs’ MBS history — to a 37-10 loss in the 2019 SEC title game — and he reflected on that Wednesday.
The No. 1-ranked Bulldogs are focused on facing No. 4 Ohio State at 8 p.m. on Saturday in the CFP Peach Bowl Semifinal, but it has been a long road to building a program that is 13-0 and capable of locking in to this extent.
“Man, just all the hard work we’ve been through, since my freshmen year I’ve seen it all,” McIntosh said. “My freshman year, we were this-close to winning, so we’ve had great teams that have been stopped short.”
Those 2019 LSU Tigers, led by Joe Burrow, are regarded by some to be the best team of this millennium, as there were 14 players selected in the 2020 NFL draft off that team.
Coach Kirby Smart said leading up to that game he had never seen an offense that explosive -- a comment that took some aback at the time, as few could predict Burrow would quickly become a Super Bowl quarterback. The Tigers receivers -- Ja’Marr Chase, Justin Jefferson and Terrace Marshall Jr. -- were also a handful.
Many forget, however, that former UGA Jake Fromm threw a perfect pass on the opening series that could have gone for a Georgia touchdown but was instead dropped, a microcosm of a season that saw an injured and inconsistent receiving corps that was missing star Lawrence Cager by the end of the year.
And those Bulldogs, of course, also were without the services of George Pickens in the first half of the SEC Championship Game, as he was suspended after getting into a fight against Georgia Tech.
Further, D’Andre Swift was injured to the extent he was limited and could not sustain a hit to the shoulder after hurting it the week before against Georgia Tech.
McIntosh has looked back to that team his freshman year and played the “what-if” game, and he believes the Bulldogs learned valuable lessons from what turned into a lost season.
“With a healthy Swift I think so, and don’t get me wrong, LSU had a great team that year, but we had a shot,” McIntosh said.
“We were in the SEC Championship Game so we were one of the best teams. If that team was a little more dialed in and connected, and not letting little things get in our head — maybe with what happened to George — that team would have been talked about more.”
But mistakes were made by players, Swift was perhaps overused, and the best the 2019 Bulldogs could do was salvage a Top 10 season with an inspiring Sugar Bowl win over Baylor despite 12 players missing the game because of injuries and suspensions.
“We bounced back from that and seen how things should be, and seen leaders step up and take on roles,” McIntosh said. “We changed up some things.
“That’s what’s prepared us (for what UGA is now) is what I’m saying. We had to go through all that for this moment now and for what we did last year.”
It’s a deep an interesting take, but it makes sense that Smart would learn from mistakes and improve the program — even as the Covid pandemic slowed the progress in a unique 2020 season.
“Guys have switched it up, we are trusting and caring, and we’ve learned about our brothers and their ‘why,’ " McIntosh said, sharing one of the more recent major changes Smart installed.
“Learning what they were doing this for has led us to this connectivity.”
And just as importantly, there were lessons learned in 2019 of what not to do.
“One thing can go wrong, and it can cost you,” McIntosh said. “That’s why now we say at Georgia we go day by day, and win 24 hours at a time.”