Why this offseason will tell us if Georgia is truly ready to become Alabama East
Kirby Smart addressed the media moments after Georgia’s devastating overtime loss to Alabama in the College Football Playoff National Championship.
Most of the questions required him to look back on the game and the season that was, and understandably so. The goal for reporters was to put that game and Georgia’s storybook season into perspective. The Dawgs were perhaps a defensive miscommunication away from knocking off Alabama and becoming the new standard in college football. Smart was also asked a question that many Georgia fans probably wondered about once the dust settled on the crushing defeat.
What did that game teach the underclassmen and can they come back stronger for having experienced that?
“The sky’s the limit. Because these guys are hungry,” Smart said after the national championship. “I just hope the younger class doesn’t take it for granted that it’s just going to happen. You’ve got to make it happen, and they’ve got to believe that.”
Those words will define the next decade in Athens.
If Georgia really is going to become “Alabama East” or anything close to that, Monday’s loss will be part of the rise. The origins of a dynasty are almost always traced back to failure. There’s that one offseason where the “close but no cigar” mantra suddenly becomes unacceptable.
Alabama had that when the 2008 season ended with a Sugar Bowl loss to Utah. Like 2017 was for Smart, that was Year 2 for Nick Saban. It was also a dramatic improvement, and not at all considered a disappointment after starting the season outside the national title picture. Saban was not at all upset with the 12-win season his team put together, but he certainly wasn’t satisfied.
Here’s what Saban said after the 2008 Sugar Bowl loss:
“…We need to continue to improve as a program for the future. We need more good players, more depth in the program. We need quality big people. We need quality skill guys. We need a lot of things for us to continue to improve to be the kind of program that is recognized as kind of a dominant program on a national level.”
The Tide then began the current decade of dominance by winning the 2009 National Championship. Smart was there for that. He remembers what it was like to be on the cusp of something bigger than one game or one season.
You’ll notice that Saban said in 2008 that Alabama “needed” all of those things to be a dominant program on a national level. Smart “needs” his underclassmen to have a sense of urgency. There can’t be a championship loss hangover — like another football team in the state of Georgia — nor can there be a sense of complacency.
Smart’s offseason job is to make sure his team is anything but complacent, which is easier said than done with 18-22 year-old kids. He doesn’t have a room full of Michael Jordans who just lost to Detroit in the playoffs.
We don’t know what Georgia has yet. We don’t know if Georgia has someone like Jalen Hurts, who had a picture of himself walking off the field after the national championship loss to Clemson as his phone background.
Say what you want about Hurts, but he did get Alabama back to the National Championship Game. He recovered from that loss. Alabama recovered from that loss. That’s what makes Saban who he is. Four of his six titles came on the heels of a postseason defeat. That’s why “Angry Saban” is a thing.
Will “Angry Kirby” become a thing? It’s too early to say. It’s a small sample size, but we saw a much-improved Georgia squad after that Auburn meltdown. The Dawgs nearly beat 3 top-5 teams in their final 3 games to end the season.
It’s obviously a different hurdle to overcome with an 8-month offseason, though the previous two national runner-ups did just that. Both 2017 Alabama and 2016 Clemson referenced their national championship losses as their launching points for the title runs the following season.
The same can be true for Georgia. It won’t be an excuse that the Dawgs lost a lot of valuable upperclassmen. No one will give them the benefit of the doubt because they’ll be younger. The new standard in Athens is that Georgia competes for national titles year in, year out. Period.
Smart said that the sky was the limit because his guys were hungry. We’re going to find out just how hungry the Dawgs are in the coming months.