Blowout loss to Alabama in 2015 helped put Georgia on a new path to National Championship Game
If one game showed just how far Georgia was from catching Alabama, it was the Oct. 3, 2015 thumping in Athens. Georgia was ranked higher, favored, at home … and never had a chance. In hindsight, Kirby Smart helped author the beginning of the end of the Mark Richt era.
It was the steady deluge from a cold, miserable rain that began early that morning and worsened throughout the day that University of Georgia athletics director Greg McGarity first recalled, an undeniable metaphor for the Bulldogs’ forgettable afternoon as a whole when they last faced Alabama on Oct. 3, 2015.
Coming off a stunning home loss to Ole Miss two weeks earlier, the 13th-ranked Crimson Tide easily overcame the ugly conditions to send notice to McGarity, Georgia and the rest of the SEC and the nation that their reign atop the college football world was far from over. They scored touchdowns in all the game’s three phases to easily dismantle Georgia, 38-10, before a soggy and equally-as-stunned crowd at Sanford Stadium.
“The weather was absolutely awful,” McGarity told SDS earlier this week as the Dawgs prepared to face the Crimson Tide for the first time since that day when the two teams meet in Atlanta’s Mercedes-Benz Stadium on Monday evening for the national championship.
“I remember wearing a pair of work boots to the game. You couldn’t have imagined anything worse weather-wise, so the day just started poorly for us weather-wise and just didn’t get any better.”
There couldn’t have been a more ignominious conclusion to a much-anticipated game that had drawn more offseason hype than just about any other regular season SEC game in recent years. That game was supposed to be the year when talent-rich Georgia led by then-coach Mark Richt finally shed its somewhat underachieving label and lived up to its advance billing by kicking door down en route to the school’s first SEC Championship since 2005.
Championship-starved UGA fans envisioned the game as the precious moment when their schools wrested the mantle of SEC supremacy from Alabama at long last.
Sensing a turn in fortunes as the game neared, they again began to speak wistfully of the school’s first national championship in 1980. The giddy days atop the college football diaspora with the likes of the iconic Herschel Walker and legendary coach Vince Dooley.
The hype began early in the offseason, months before the game’s actual kickoff, growing into a thunderous crescendo that reached fever pitch by the time game week finally arrived. Tickets had become a highly sought-after commodity and those who had them were only happy to shell out beaucoup d’argent to get them. Sanford Stadium was the center of the college football world on Oct. 3, 2015.
The fireworks started early as players from both sides had to be separated before kickoff after Georgia players sprinted toward Bama’s sideline as the Tide entered.
Almost got ugly pre game. Alabama and Georgia players barking. Refs separate them. pic.twitter.com/0rzui88i5O
— Michael Casagrande (@ByCasagrande) October 3, 2015
“Anytime Alabama comes to town, it’s a big deal,” McGarity said. “It only works out schedule-wise every decade or so, so all of our fans had circled this game on their calendars for a long time.”
ESPN’s vaunted “College GameDay” was likewise intrigued and on the ground in Athens to be “Between the Hedges” for this matchup of juggernaut programs.
The college football odds-makers were equally as sold by what had they seen in No. 8-ranked and undefeated Georgia (4-0) to that point and what they believed to be a coming sunset to the dominant Alabama run led by coach Nick Saban.
Alabama enters Monday night’s matchup having been favored in 110 of its previous 111 games. The last time the Crimson Tide began a game as underdogs (one point) was on that rainy day in Athens a little more than two years ago.
Only nobody bothered to tell the Crimson Tide their run was over.
They jumped all over the Dawgs from the outset, racing to a 24-3 halftime lead. Two true freshmen — Minkah Fitpatrick and Calvin Ridley — played big that day for Alabama and will again play pivotal roles when the teams face off again in Atlanta on Monday evening.
Georgia trailed just 10-3 in the second period when cornerback Fitzpatrick, a 5-star recruit who had won the nickel back job battle during the summer, blocked a punt, recovered the ball near the goal line and dashed 1 yard into the end zone for a touchdown. Calvin Ridley, whose younger brother, sophomore receiver Riley Ridley, now plays for the Dawgs, caught five passes for 120 yards and a score that day.
Intermission did nothing to slow the Tide.
Eddie Jackson intercepted a poorly thrown Brice Ramsey pass on Georgia’s first offensive play of the second half and return it 50 yards for a touchdown, slamming the door shut on any chances of there being a changing of the guard in the SEC that year.
The steady rain really started coming down shortly after halftime, sending Georgia fans to the exits en masse on a dreary day that matched the mood of the entire Bulldog Nation.
Georgia sophomore running back Nick Chubb added a meaningless 83-yard touchdown scamper late in the third period to close a 38-10 final score that by no means reflected just how lopsided the game actually was. Chubb, tailback Sony Michel and the Bulldogs’ current seniors were all on the field for that game and likely remember its bitter aftertaste all too well.
“We’ve got to re-evaluate everything,” Richt said afterward. “The quarterback play. Everything.”
Everything eventually included the head coach.
AD Greg McGarity on the role the Alabama game played in parting ways with Mark Richt
Close no longer was good enough
The game’s one-sided outcome was almost identical to Alabama’s previous visit to Sanford Stadium in 2008, when a Georgia team that began the season ranked No. 1 in the nation featuring a troika of future NFL stars in quarterback Matthew Stafford, tailback Knowshon Moreno and wide receiver A.J. Green came out wearing back jerseys as part of a “blackout,” only to find itself in a 31-0 halftime hole en route to a 41-30 loss.
That 2008 game in many ways heralded the start of Saban’s dominating run in Tuscaloosa, which has resulted in five conference titles (2009, 2012, 2014, 2015, 2016) and four national championships (2009, 2011, 2012, 2015) since his arrival there in 2007.
McGarity said that such disappointing outcomes are to be expected when playing a team as formidable as Alabama and getting their best game without giving yours in return.
The Crimson Tide went on to win another national title in 2015. Their defensive coordinator on that telling October day in 2015 was Kirby Smart, the former Bulldog defensive back.
Georgia finished with a solid 10-3 season in 2015, but the disappointing loss at home to the Crimson Tide ultimately played a role in McGarity’s anguishing decision at season’s end to part ways with Richt and bring Smart back to his alma mater as his successor in December 2015.
A former standout UGA player, Smart had spent the previous nine seasons on Saban’s staff, the final seven as his defensive coordinator. They won four national titles together before Smart left to return to his alma mater.
McGarity, however, stressed that the crushing loss to Alabama did not by itself lead to his decision to make a coaching change.
“We were still in the Top 10 and still had a lot of important games left to play,” he said. “It later came into play as you looked collectively at the entire season as a whole.
“We had gotten to the doorstep. We just couldn’t knock the door down.”
McGarity’s decision wasn’t fun or easy
That sinking feeling the program had plateaued is ultimately why McGarity made the change, but he called it the toughest professional decision he’s ever had to make.
There were plenty of critics who decried the decision to fire his coach, a good man and two-time SEC Coach of the Year who had averaged nearly 10 wins per season during his 15-year tenure in Athens while winning a pair of SEC Championships (2002 and 2005) within his first five.
But McGarity knew what he had to do.
“In your heart, you have to be 100 percent certain,” he said. “Once you get to that 100 percent, you have to do what’s best for the institution. At that time, I felt like it was the best thing for everyone.”
So far, so good, but McGarity isn’t the type to gloat.
“I’m really not a person who looks in the rear-view mirror,” he said. “I don’t keep score of what people said. If I did, I’d still be living in the past.”
But there are some facts that no one can dispute. From the ashes of that forgettable day in Athens, Georgia was able to partly forge this year’s magical run that has included an unforgettable win at Notre Dame, the school’s first SEC Championship since 2005, an epic Rose Bowl victory over Oklahoma in the College Football Playoff semifinals and the school’s first national championship game berth in 35 years.
And this is just Year 2 of the Kirby Smart era.
“To me, it was all about those four seniors (Chubb, Michel and linebackers Lorenzo Carter and Davin Bellamy) coming back,” McGarity said. “That was the validation that what Kirby and his staff were doing was going to work.
“Who knew what that would translate into in terms of numbers of wins? Those young men enjoyed being in this positive environment. They knew they didn’t like the way the season ended last year (at 8-5), and they knew they could come back, be part of a team that could do something special and that they could get better.”