This Will Leitch piece about Georgia on the precipice tomorrow has gotten a lot of praise, and deservedly so. I urge you to take a few minutes to read it. There’s one section in particular that resonates with me. It’s this:
The closest Georgia came to that elusive national championship was in 2012. The Bulldogs played Alabama, of course, in the SEC championship game, and led most of the way. But with less than a minute left, they trailed by four, and Aaron Murray, one of the best quarterbacks in Georgia history, drove them down the field to try to become a legend in Athens. The winner of the game would play an undefeated but not well-regarded Notre Dame team in the national championship game. This was Georgia on the precipice.
I know that reciting the details of this play will make Georgia fans scream, but: Georgia had the ball at the Alabama eight with 16 seconds, no timeouts and the clock running down. Rather than spike the ball — potentially giving the Bulldogs two shots at the end zone — Murray ran a play, tossing a pass to current Kansas City Chief and truly dedicated Star Wars enthusiast Chris Conley, who, as he was falling down, caught the pass, almost out of instinct. With no timeouts, the clock ran out. Alabama had won another SEC championship (and would go on to destroy Notre Dame in the BCS championship game). Georgia was left on the outside looking in again.
Mentioning this game — let alone watching highlights of it — will cause any Georgia fan’s eye to begin twitching. I lived in Brooklyn with my wife and infant son at the time, on the 22nd floor of a high-rise apartment complex just across the Manhattan Bridge. When the clock ran out, I had to stop her from tearing the television off the wall and throwing it out the window onto innocent pedestrians below. It still hurts people here to even think about it.
But watch the play again, or, more specifically, watch the Alabama players and coaches celebrating directly afterward.
Look at that crazy Alabama coach jumping on top of his players after they’ve made the tackle of Conley. At Georgia’s darkest moment, look at the happiest guy on the field.
That man is Kirby Smart, then defensive coordinator of the Alabama Crimson Tide. He is now the head coach of Georgia. He’s the guy they fired Mark Richt for, the guy Georgia brass caused the whole rift to get here. He’s now the one who has them one game away.
I’ve already blogged about the key factors Georgia has to overcome to get a win tomorrow. On paper, my biggest concern is whether the Dawgs can improve their line play enough to change the results from three weeks ago.
If I’m honest about it, though, line play isn’t really what makes me skeptical about a Georgia win. Tomorrow’s game being exactly the kind of game that Georgia always comes up short in ever since New Year’s Day, 1981, is what makes me doubt. Sure, there have been signature wins and conference titles, even a BCS game here and there, since then. But inevitably, when Georgia’s faced that opportunity to win a game that would vault it into national prominence, it’s failed to seize the moment.
Dooley had them the next two seasons. Goff’s 1992 outrageously talented team came up five points short against its two main divisional rivals to blow that season’s opportunity. Jim Donnan’s 1997 squad beat Florida, only to face plant the next week against Auburn.
And then there’s 2012. That one stung the most not just because there was so much at stake, but also because the Dawgs showed up and traded blows all game with Alabama, only to have a tipped pass go the wrong way. That’s what Georgia football’s done for all these years and we’ve become inured to that. It’s like the football gods looked at the program and said, “you got Herschel and that’s all you’re getting”.
So now there’s Kirby, Kirby Dancin’ Smart, who’s been on both sides of Georgia heartbreak, as the Alabama assistant in 2012 and the Georgia safety in 1997. He’s the guy we’re asking to erase this feeling of inevitably falling just short at precisely the worst time. Maybe he can, but he’s sure got a lot to overcome to get there.
It’s not about the Process tomorrow. The Process is about building a program for the long haul. That’s on track. What the SECCG is about is finding out if those same football gods have been placated. Have we served enough time wandering in the desert is the question and my heart doesn’t hold an answer for that as I type this. I’ll watch the game consumed by equal parts of hope and dread. That’s my birthright as a fan of Georgia football.
I will say this about beating Auburn. If Georgia is crowned SEC champ tomorrow, it’ll feel like the Dawgs will play the rest of this season on house money. For me, for once, defying the pessimistic expectations and seeing the team included in the ultimate consideration, to finally reach that seemingly unreachable stage, will be its own reward for sticking around and loving Georgia football for almost forty years. Sure, if they get over the hump, I’d like a national title as much as anyone. Who wouldn’t? But for once, the trip itself, along with prospects for the future, would be enough of a reward for carrying this black cloud around for almost four decades. Lord knows I’m ready to put it down.