MEMPHIS, Tenn. — The season started with a win in the Georgia Dome and Kirby Smart holding up a trophy of a leather helmet.
The season ended with a win in Memphis and the coach holding up a trophy of a wooden Liberty Bell.
So yeah, something went seriously wrong in between. The 2016 season will not be placed on a top shelf or behind glass, which is something we’ve suspected since probably Nicholls State week.
But if Georgia needed any sort of bounce going into its offseason, it was provided Friday. The Bulldogs won their final game over TCU 31-23. Its storefront window for the season looks significantly better at 8-5 than 7-6.
It was a confetti-free season. But the Dogs did get this in the end: a 142-yard, one-touchdown rushing performance from Nick Chubb, who announced recently he is returning next season; an 87-yard, two-touchdown game from Sony Michel, who also said he’s coming back; a fumble recovery from safety Dominick Sanders, who also announced after the game that he will return to Athens; three sacks from defensive tackle Trenton Thompson, who also is coming back; a sack and two forced fumbles by Lorenzo Carter, who also is coming back.
I could go on. But you get the idea.
Is it ever too early to bang the drum and wonder about the magic of a lottery ticket?
“I really believed, whether we win or lost this game, this program is headed in the right direction,” Smart said, sending a message to returning players, fans and most of all recruits.
“It doesn’t matter if you have seven wins, 11 wins, 13 wins. There’s no elevator on a mountain. You just climb. It certainly helps that we’re 8-5 and not 7-6, but either way we’re not where we want to be, and we know that.”
Was this a brilliant performance? No. Georgia’s offense struggled for much of the game until the running game took hold and the TCU defense wore down in the second half.
Was this a great opponent? No. The Horned Frogs had won eight of their past 10 bowl games, an impressive trend under coach Gary Patterson, but they had a mostly miserable season, finishing 6-7 overall and 4-5 in the Big 12, including a final week blowout loss at home to Kansas State 30-6.
But Georgia’s defense had five sacks. And two takeaways. And held TCU to one scoring drive on its last seven possessions. The offense figured out a way to put away a game. This team showed no success in either area in the season’s final week against Georgia Tech.
Chubb rushed for 113 yards in the second half. He referenced the early struggles in the game, then said, “Eventually we ended up breaking a couple. After a while nobody wants to tackle. Especially in the bowl season, you get away from fundamentals.”
The offense was so bad for a while, offensive coordinator Jim Chaney was even under assault from a Rock and Roll Hall of Famer.
Mike Mills, the former R.E.M. bassist and one of Athens’ famous residents, tweeted during the second quarter: “Fire Jim Chaney. Now. During the game.”
The Bulldogs had 204 yards in offense at halftime. They weren’t nearly that good. In their first 21 offensive snaps (seven possessions), they had a 77-yard gain on one play and 35 yards on the other 20 (1.75 per play). The 77-yarder was a busted play on the second possession when Eason did a nice job to scramble out of danger and threw a short toss to Isaiah McKenzie, who went all video-game again and zig-zagged up the field to the TCU 8-yard line. Two plays later from the four, Michel found the end zone for a 7-0 lead.
The net yardage on the next five Georgia drives: nine, minus-3 (and an Eason fumble), minus-3, two, nine.
As Chaney continued to burn bridges with fans and R.E.M, TCU took a 16-7 lead, with one of the touchdowns following an Eason fumble at the Dogs’ 21. The freshman also misfired on some throws, including an overthrow intended for Terry Godwin that could have gone for a touchdown.
But the Bulldogs rallied with a touchdown before the half, Michel turning a third-and-13 checkdown into a 33-yard touchdown, closing TCU’s lead to 16-14.
Then, in a season devoid of much imagination, Georgia pulled off a fake field-goal attempt, with Brice Ramsey rushing for 11 yards on fourth-and-6 from the TCU 21. Three plays later, Eason faked a sweep toss to Michel and threw a 4-yard touchdown to Javon Wims for a 21-16 lead.
Mills followed with a tweet: “Nice toss sweep fake. Chaney’s in the bathroom?”
Apparently, there was no coming back for him.
The game rocked back and forth until Georgia drove 70 yards on nine plays for a touchdown with 2:48 left, with Chubb running into the end zone from the 8.
What made it particularly sweet: all nine plays, all 70 yards, came on runs. It was the ultimate, grind-it-out kind of drive that Alabama is famous for down the stretch of games, the kind of drive Smart envisions Georgia doing with regularity.
“At the end of the day, can you run the ball when you have to run the ball and they know you have to run the ball?” Smart said.
Georgia did that. Let the buildup for 2017 begin now.