ATHENS, Ga. — It is difficult to come up with a more perfect season than what the Georgia Bulldogs have given their fans this year. When we did the College Football Tortured Fan Base Rankings after the national championship game two years ago, Georgia was No. 1, and it wasn’t particularly close. Georgia had watched all the programs around it win national titles: Auburn, Alabama, Florida, Tennessee, Clemson, even Georgia Tech, and the Bulldogs had always been left out in the cold. The one constant of Georgia football was that it would raise your hopes and then break your heart. Coming into this year, particularly after a disappointing first season of new coach Kirby Smart’s tenure, the average Georgia fan was in a reflexive defensive crouch. You knew the hammer was going to come down on you at some point. It was just a matter of when.
But this year … it just never happened. Think about all the things that have happened in this dream season of Bulldogs football:
- They not only defeated hated rivals Tennessee, Florida and Georgia Tech — all of whom had dealt the Bulldogs particularly demoralizing losses in recent years — they utterly trounced them, beating them by a combined score of 121-14. 121-14!
- They clinched their first SEC East title in five years the day after the World Series ended.
- They played in one of the two most hallowed stadiums in all of college football — not to mention their second (and almost first) game above the Mason-Dixon Line in more than 50 years — and took it over in a dramatic victory over blueblood program Notre Dame, with so many of the Bulldogs faithful traveling to the game that it felt like a home game.
- They avenged their only loss, to another hated rival no less, in the first-ever SEC championship game at the sterling palace 65 miles away from campus, clinching their first appearance in the College Football Playoff.
- They played in the other of the two most hallowed stadiums in all of college football and took it over in a dramatic victory over blueblood program Oklahoma, with so many of the Bulldogs faithful traveling to the contest that it felt like a home game.
- They did it with just about every Stock Lovable Character from a clichéd football movie imaginable, from the wise and grizzled veteran running backs to the ferocious inside linebacker who terrifies opponents to the fresh-faced out-of-nowhere All-American Boy quarterback to even the quirky bespectacled kicker. If you were the sort of person to buy bootlegged jerseys of college football players to show your support for the team — and you shouldn’t be this person, though I also might be this person — you would have at least a dozen legitimate options to choose from.
There are certain seasons that are just special, essentially from start to finish. The 2016 Chicago Cubs are probably the best recent example of this, a team that gave its fans everything they could have possibly asked for at every available opportunity, and did so in a historically breakthrough fashion. The 2009 New Orleans Saints are another one. 2016 Villanova, 1985 Chicago Bears, 2004 Boston Red Sox, you can even make a case for the 2017 Houston Astros if you want to. Your fans have suffered for decades, desperate for that one season that makes all those years of investment worthwhile. Then one year … everything clicks, everything falls into place, all your dreams come true. It’s the Dream Season. Every year your team wins a championship is in its own way a Dream Season. But the true magnificent seasons, where every week brings more manna from the heavens, where you honestly cannot believe this is happening, and it culminates in a glorious championship … they are rare. They are truly special.
That’s what this year has been for Georgia football. This was the one they were waiting for. They just have one more little game to win.
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So much has been made about Kirby Smart and his history with Alabama coach Nick Saban that I think it has been lost a little bit just how much Alabama has been Georgia’s stalking horse for the last decade, independent of Smart. In the Saban era, Georgia has played Alabama four times. The Bulldogs actually won the first one, in 2007, Saban’s first year, before he was SABAN, in the infamous game in which ESPN broadcaster Mike Patrick, on the final drive, inexplicably started talking about Britney Spears right as Georgia was driving for the winning touchdown.
The next year, Saban locked it in. Georgia came into the season ranked No. 1 in preseason polls and was 4-0 heading into the game against the 5-0 Tide. Alabama promptly blitzed the Dawgs, taking a 31-0 halftime lead en route to a 41-30 win that wasn’t as close as the score indicated. They wouldn’t play again until the 2012 SEC championship game, when Georgia famously fell two yards short of reaching a national championship game against a weak Notre Dame team. (As Alabama defensive coordinator Kirby Smart ran onto the field celebrating like a madman.) And that was their last meeting until 2015. Once again, Georgia came into Alabama week 4-0, and the Bulldogs were at home at Sanford Stadium and, because Alabama had just lost to Mississippi the previous week, favored. (It remains the last time Alabama wasn’t favored in a game.) There was a driving rainstorm that was only the start of Georgia’s misery. Alabama once again blitzed Georgia, taking a 38-3 lead that led to something I’d never seen before: 50,000 people standing up at once and silently walking out of a stadium in unison, as if directed by remote control.
It’s that moment that Georgia brass (and, more important, Georgia donors) decided to fire Mark Richt. They wouldn’t do it until the season was over. They didn’t know that Kirby Smart would be their guy. But at that point, it was clear: The chasm between Alabama and Georgia was cavernous and one that Richt would not be able to bridge. If you were to pinpoint the most pivotal Georgia games over the past decade — the most momentous, the ones that changed the trajectory of the program the most — four of the top 10, maybe four of the top seven, would be games against Alabama … the only four times they’ve played them. Alabama is the ghost Georgia has been chasing for 10 years. On Monday, it will be chasing the Tide again.
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It is undeniable that this is just the start for Georgia. Smart just put together the top recruiting class in the country, beating Alabama at its own game, and it has become accepted truth here in Athens that this team, the one that’s one win away from the school’s first national championship in 37 years, will in fact be the least talented Georgia team until at least 2021. If anything, this dream season has happened a year or two early. Smart is still coaching many of Richt’s recruits. This won’t be fully his team, with his vision, for another couple of years, at least. If he keeps stacking recruiting classes on top of each other like he has, look out. Georgia has desperately wanted what Alabama has. Smart is as close as anyone has ever come to giving it that.
But that’s the future, the long run, and as a wise man said, in the long run we are all dead. The notion that this is the beginning of a series of College Football Playoff appearances for Georgia is presumptuous in the extreme. All sorts of strange things can happen. Heck, you know what Georgia fans were thinking after Mark Richt went 13-1 in his second season, the same record Smart has right now in his second season? This is just the beginning. But it wasn’t. It turned out to be the peak. Richt wasn’t fortunate enough to have a College Football Playoff in 2002. He had to settle for third place and the promise of more. It’s just that more never came.
Georgia may have more talented teams coming, but it’s never just about talent. Georgia still has to play in the SEC, which is reloading after a down year and will never have Florida, Tennessee, LSU, Texas A&M, et al, as down as they collectively were this year. If they can win the SEC East again — an obvious requirement to make a playoff, though don’t tell Ohio State or Alabama that — the Bulldogs will still have to deal with Alabama or Auburn in an SEC championship game. All it takes is one off Saturday, or one odd bounce of the ball, or just one odd decision from a selection committee. One cannot assume Georgia will be back to this place again.
Those are the stakes for Georgia on Monday. That’s the thing about Dream Seasons: They’re only truly Dream Seasons when they end in a championship. As giddy as the 2016 Cubs season was for their fans, had Francisco Lindor hit one of those spinning Aroldis Chapman sliders in the bottom of the ninth inning of Game 7 deep into the Progressive Field night, Cubs fans would not look back at the 2016 season and smile. They would think about how close they came, and how brutally their Dream Season was snatched away. It wouldn’t be a Dream Season at all. Their memories would be about what should have been, and what wasn’t.
That’s what’s on the line for Georgia on Monday. Alabama is Alabama: This will either be its fifth championship of the Saban era, or it won’t. But even with all of Smart’s recruiting successes and the potential of this Georgia football machine, nothing is guaranteed for Georgia. This could end up being the peak, right here. All the glories of this season, Nick Chubb, Sony Michel, D’Andre Swift, Javon Wims, Ro! Quan!, Rodrigo!, Jake Fromm, South Bend, 41-0, Pasadena, the blocked kick, the Michel run, all of it … they only resonate forever, as the true Dream Season, if Georgia wins Monday.
The Bulldogs will end up one of three things: Precursor, History Cruelly Denied, or Immortal. Monday night will decide all of it. You only get a season like this once in a lifetime. And maybe not even then. Which means while they are here … they might as well go ahead and win the darned thing.