In each of the last two seasons, Georgia has seemingly used an ugly loss as a catalytic event. The Bulldogs shook off a beatdown at Auburn in 2017 to win a rematch with the Tigers in the SEC Championship — earning a Playoff spot in the process. In 2018, UGA rebounded from a humbling defeat at LSU to win five-straight and an SEC East crown for the second-straight year.
Some have suggested that what happened to Georgia at the hands of South Carolina Saturday was the 2019 version of The Loss. It might be, or it might simply be the first loss.
It’s too early to tell.
It’s also been pointed out plenty over the last 24 hours how many teams have collected inexplicable defeats during otherwise successful seasons. Given what many of us thought about UGA before the season, it seems easy to lump these Bulldogs into the same discussion as Ohio State in 2014, Alabama in 2015, Clemson in 2016 and Alabama again in 2017 — teams that overcame upset losses along the way to eventually winning the national championship.
However, what no UGA fan wants to consider, but could nonetheless end up being true, is that these Bulldogs have more in common with a team such as Auburn in 2014.
The Tigers were walking tall back then. They had collected a string of top-10 recruiting classes, won the SEC the previous season, played for a national championship and had a young coach, Gus Malzahn, who was the toast of college football.
Auburn was ranked sixth to start 2014 and began the year by winning five-straight before losing 38-23 at Mississippi State. After that defeat there was no shortage of discussion about how the Tigers were still alive as a Playoff contender as long as they finished strong down the stretch.
The only problem for Auburn was there was no strong finish. The loss at Mississippi State proved to be a harbinger of doom.
The Tigers lost four of their final seven games to finish the season 8-5.
There are probably some UGA fans who’ll read this who feel so dejected about what happened against South Carolina that they’ll assume the same kind of fate awaits UGA.
That doesn’t have to be the case, but there’s no guarantee it won’t be.
The question that begs to be asked then is how does Georgia avoid disaster and use a loss to get better?
One commonality that some of the one-loss national champions have had in the Playoff era is that a major change occurred after their defeat.
Ohio State lost to Virginia Tech in 2014 with J.T. Barrett at quarterback, but turned to Cardale Jones in the postseason — a decision necessitated by a string of injuries which turned out to be a galvanizing moment nonetheless.
In 2015, Alabama coach Nick Saban also made a quarterback change after losing to Ole Miss — settling on Jake Coker after oddly starting Cooper Bateman vs. the Rebels.
Yet the biggest transformation that season for the Crimson Tide was with its play calling. Running back Derrick Henry won the Heisman in 2015, but was lightly used to begin the year — averaging just 17 carries per game over the season’s first four games. However, for the final four games of the season — which included the Iron Bowl, SEC Championship and two Playoff games — Henry averaged 37 carries per game.
Then in 2017, the most famous (or infamous if you’re a UGA fan) change of all took place. Saban made the gutsy call to swap quarterbacks in the national championship game — benching Jalen Hurts, who had struggled in a loss at Auburn, in place of Tua Tagovailoa who… well, you know how that game ended.
The point is shaking off a bad loss typically requires some kind of change.
For UGA this season, even though Jake Fromm struggled vs. the Gamecocks, no one would suggest a quarterback change be considered. However, almost no one at this point thinks Fromm — or any other component of the UGA offense — is being used properly.
The Bulldogs averaged 4.93 yards per play against South Carolina. For context, that’s precisely the same as 1-5 Georgia Tech has averaged for the season. The Yellow Jackets are 112th in the country in that metric.
Therefore, it’s clear that improved offense is what UGA’s major change needs to be as a response to its loss to the Gamecocks. What’s less clear though is whether first-year coordinator James Coley is capable of orchestrating that change given his ineffectiveness to date, and whether Kirby Smart — whose early success as head coach might have accidentally produced some stubbornness — is willing to make any changes.
In fact, UGA’s recent history of overcoming losses the way it did after Auburn in 2017 and LSU last year might make Smart feel even more empowered to double down on an offensive philosophy that seems to look conservative and unimaginative far too frequently.
Yet the fact that the Bulldogs find themselves in the same scenario year after year of needing to overcome a bad loss should probably cause Smart to take a long look at the possibility that some sort of systemic failing is what’s producing those results — especially considering this year’s version of The Loss came at the hands of a 3-3 Gamecocks team that will be lucky to become bowl eligible.
Is that what he’ll do?
Your guess is as good as mine.
However, if Smart wants to consider the consequences of ignoring the problem, all he has to do is look at what’s been said about Malzahn since 2014.