All offseason, Kirby Smart provided the same answer in an attempt to squash the easy 2018 Georgia narrative.
“No, I don’t use 2nd-and-26 as motivation.”
Why not? Well, the Georgia coach didn’t want to use last year’s national championship devastation to inspire this year’s team because, well, that was last year and this is this year. J.R. Reed and Deandre Baker might’ve seen 2nd-and-26 up close, but Tyson Campbell and Eric Stokes weren’t there for that.
For most of the year, Georgia players echoed that sentiment. I remember asking Reed about that play at SEC Media Days, and he went so far as to claim it was the media’s fault that they kept hearing so much about it (shame on the media for not completely dismissing one of the biggest plays in college football history).
“It’s not discussed at all. We’re players. We’re not fans, so we don’t get hung up on things like that. We’ve gotta move on to the next play. We’ve gotta move on to the next game. There’s always something else,” Reed said in Atlanta in July. “You can’t get hung up on a play that was in the national championship. We can’t do anything about that. That’s in the past.”
But with the rematch finally set, senior defensive lineman Jonathan Ledbetter gave the more believable answer about reliving what Alabama’s walk-off touchdown did for this year’s Georgia team.
“I didn’t come back this year to not be here,” Ledbetter said. “This was expected of me. I worked for this. I think everybody on the team worked for this. I think anybody that came back and didn’t go on to the next level that didn’t have to, really expected this to be another season. We have unfinished business and we intend to go ahead and handle that.”
OK, so Ledbetter didn’t reference 2nd-and-26 directly there, but he basically said what we all know to be true.
Of course it provided some extra motivation to lose like that. We’re going to find out just how much motivation it provided on Saturday.
If — I realize this is a huge “if” — Georgia pulls off the upset and avenges last year’s title game loss, there’s no doubt that you’ll hear quotes like, “we were sick and tired of being reminded of that play all offseason. We knew we had no choice but to come out here today and end things differently this time.”
There’s nothing wrong with admitting that. Quite frankly, I’m not so sure why Smart has been so against the idea of publicly admitting that 2nd-and-26 provided a little extra juice after Georgia’s historic 2017 season came to a crushing end.
As a former defensive back, you know that had to eat at him. I’d bet there were plenty of restless nights replaying when Tua Tagovailoa looked off the entire right side of Georgia’s secondary — where Reed and Baker both were — and came back to the left on a perfectly thrown ball to beat Cover 2.
Smart doesn’t have to share how much that play really bothered him. His team’s performance Saturday will tell us all we need to know.
Are Georgia cornerbacks like Baker playing press coverage like they’ve never played before? Are defensive linemen like Ledbetter flying off the ball like their season depends on it?
One thing Georgia players did admit since 2nd-and-26 happened was that they weren’t prepared for someone who could throw the ball like Tagovailoa. The game plan was to shut down Jalen Hurts, which they accomplished.
This time, they’ve got an entire season’s worth of film on the future Heisman Trophy winner. They’ve even had the SEC East title locked up for a month — as did Alabama with the West — so they essentially had about as much time as one could ask for to prepare for a matchup like this.
Will we get reminders of that Saturday? Or will an even more experienced Tagovailoa just pick apart the Georgia defense like he did to pretty much every other group he faced this year?
We’ll get answers to those questions soon enough.
It’s fitting that we’re going to get an Alabama-Georgia sequel after last year’s show had us on the edge of our seats from start to the 2nd-and-26 finish. Ledbetter called the rematch “inevitable.” He’s right. It was the boring preseason pick because it seemed painfully obvious that both teams were clearly the best in their respective divisions.
The 2nd-and-26 hangover narrative might’ve been on the minds of Georgia fans during the first half of 2018, but that’s no longer the case. Now, the revenge narrative is all that matters.
Well, just not according to Smart.