Is this Georgia's year? College GameDay crew weighs in
ORLANDO — “They will beat Alabama when they stop worrying so much about beating Alabama.”
Rece Davis told me something that I’m sure Georgia fans have thought, but maybe not said out loud.
Each of the Dawgs’ past 2 title pushes ended with heartbreak at the hands of Alabama. Blame coaching, blame late-game execution or blame the sheer magnitude of trying to get a rabid fan base its first national championship since 1980. Whatever you want to call it, one thing is clear.
Alabama is the elephant in the room. Well, so is 1980.
Ahead of 2019, I talked to Davis, Kirk Herbstreit and Laura Rutledge about both elephants in the room.
For starters, “can” this be Georgia’s year compared “will” this be Georgia’s year brought on different responses. None of that trio wanted to make the bold move and definitively say that the Dawgs will win a national title in 2019.
(David Pollack did go on GameDay last Saturday and say that Georgia had the best chance of disrupting the Clemson-Alabama party, but that’s not too bold of a statement considering the Dawgs are starting at No. 3 in the country.)
The trio of ESPN personalities that I talked with last week in Orlando agreed that Georgia will represent the SEC East in Atlanta for the 3rd consecutive year. Rutledge, a Florida grad, admitted that the Dawgs are still the team to beat in the division and right on the cusp of even better things.
“I agree with a lot of the polls. I think Georgia is the 3rd-best team coming into this year and it’s going to be a battle for what happens in the SEC Championship Game,” Rutledge said. “Yeah, I think Florida is close to knocking off Georgia. You never know what could happen with that game in Jacksonville, but Georgia is probably underrated, even on the defensive side of the ball. Last year, they had to play a ton of youngsters just because so many guys departed for the NFL the previous year and all of those players had a ton of reps that really were super valuable.”
Herbstreit’s answer was a bit more definitive. He has Alabama winning a national championship and completing the revenge tour, which would include another victory over the Dawgs in the SEC Championship.
“I think they’re the team to beat in the East. I also think Alabama is coming into this year in a bad mood,” Herbstreit said. “I think Alabama is still the team to beat regardless of what happened against Clemson. It might be bad timing for Georgia in that regard.”
Of the 5 times that Saban’s teams returned from a bowl loss, they won a national title the following season 4 times. Perhaps that’s the third elephant in the room for Georgia.
The good news is that Georgia’s quarterback situation is as clear as it’s been the past 2 years. Herbstreit cited how when all the Justin Fields controversy started last year, he went to bat for Jake Fromm, who as Davis said, “probably set an all-time college football record for running off former 5-star quarterback recruits.”
Now, of course, it’s just Fromm. Even though Herbstreit doesn’t have Georgia winning it all, he added that any team with a quarterback like Fromm has a chance. It’s hard to argue with that. Fromm has as much big-game experience as any quarterback in the country. Here’s how many conference championships/New Year’s 6 Bowls each of these elite signal-callers started in so far:
- Jake Fromm, 5
- Jalen Hurts, 5
- Tua Tagovailoa, 3
- Trevor Lawrence, 3
- Sam Ehlinger, 2
- Shea Patterson, 1
- K.J. Costello, 1
- Ian Book, 1
- Justin Herbert, 0
And it could also be why the sense of urgency is at an all-time high. Perhaps it’s shades of 2013 when Georgia started at No. 5 with Aaron Murray back for his senior season. That year, however, Georgia didn’t end up anywhere near a national title. An 8-win season saw Georgia lose 3 SEC games. That’s something Kirby Smart’s team hasn’t done in the past 2 years combined.
Georgia’s 2019 preseason buzz might remind some of the 2008 squad the started at No. 1 in the Associated Press Top 25. But high hopes for Matthew Stafford’s inevitable final season in Athens weren’t met because of Alabama in the infamous blackout game (the 39-point loss to Tim Tebow’s Florida squad really put the nail in the coffin on ending the drought that year).
Only time will tell if Alabama, which just suffered another devastating injury, this time to Dylan Moses, is once again the thing standing in Georgia’s way of winning it all. As Davis said, the biggest hurdle to Georgia beating Alabama is … Georgia.
“I think that in the last two games, they have largely outplayed Alabama, certainly in the first half of the National Championship Game. Not so much the second half. People sometimes say (they outplayed Alabama) until the very end. Alabama outplayed them in the second half after Tua (Tagovailoa) came in the game,” Davis said. “The SEC Championship Game last year, Georgia outplayed Alabama for the vast majority of the game. Couldn’t finish the deal.
“Whether it was getting a little more protective of the lead or whether it was getting a little more panicked and calling an inexplicable fake punt, those types of things, you can’t give a program like Alabama those extra opportunities. When (Georgia) stops trying so hard and just play to their ability, they can do it.”
“Now having said all of that, and I realize that’s fairly critical and I don’t really mean it that way. I think they are in a group with Alabama, Clemson and Ohio State with the most talented rosters in the country,” Davis added. “So certainly they’re capable of not only getting over the proverbial hump against Alabama, they’re capable of winning the national championship.
“They’ve got dudes. They’ve got leadership and they’ve got everything they need to win the national championship. They’ll just need to be able to finish off … I think they’ve cleared the mental hurdle of being able to compete with Alabama. It’s being able to clear the mental hurdle of finishing the deal.”
It’s as interesting a question as any in college football heading into the start of 2019. Desmond Howard is the only GameDay analyst on record for picking Georgia to beat Alabama and make the Playoff this year, though even he has Clemson beating the Dawgs for the national championship.
Other media members predicted the streak will end this year. Tony Barnhart picked Georgia, as did yours truly. Oh, and so did Ric Flair. Though I suppose the former professional wrestler declaring on “Finebaum” that it would be Georgia’s year doesn’t exactly count as a prediction from an analyst.
Clearly, most analysts aren’t declaring 2019 “national title or bust” for Georgia. Some fans, especially those who have been waiting since 1980, might have a different thought on that. And for what it’s worth, the betting public seems to like Georgia’s odds. ESPN reported that at Caesars Sportsbook and DraftKings, more money has been bet on Georgia to win a national championship than any other team.
We know that Smart isn’t setting that type of expectation. At least not publicly. His mantra this year is “do more.” If the Dawgs can “do (any) more” than they have the past 2 years, they’ll hoist a national championship trophy at season’s end.
But as they know all too well, they’ve got a long way to go to finally dance like it’s 1980.