The University of Georgia football program plays inside an iconic, hedge-lined 92,000-seat stadium that has been sold out for 125 consecutive games. It is located in an idyllic college town, is an easy drive from Atlanta and boasts one of the most talent-rich recruiting areas in the country. It competes in the sport’s most formidable league, the SEC.
Georgia’s football facility cost $80 million to build, its coach $7.1 million to employ. It has made 25 consecutive bowl games (or playoffs). Over the past half century, it has produced 367 victories, 49 All-Americans, 31 first-round NFL draft picks and just four losing seasons.
It’s not easy being better at college football than Georgia.
This is the big time.
It just never seems to win the big one.
Despite sizable advantages and immense investment, Georgia hasn’t won a national title since 1980, a practically prehistoric time for the sport where media voters determined the champs (not that the 12-0 Bulldogs were a poor choice).
Since then, perhaps no one has been as consistently excellent, or as incredibly close (14 seasons with 10 win in the past two decades alone), only to fall just short time and time again. The title drought is almost inexplicable. Georgia has, and has had, everything it needed to win multiple titles. It just hasn’t.
Worse for Bulldog fans is that while their team wasn’t winning it, nearly everyone around them has been. Instate or border-state rivals — the kinds of teams neighbors, coworkers or cousins root for — have dominated the sport.
The Crimson Tide have most recently stood in the way, with Nick Saban riding a seven-game win streak against Georgia that includes three triumphs in SEC title games and, most crushingly, a come-from-behind overtime victory in the 2017 season national title game.
And so now comes Monday, the latest, best chance to change it all. The two teams meet again with the national title on the line, this time at Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis.
No one is denying the stakes … immediate and historic.
“To be the first since the drought, I tell people, you’ll be a Georgia legend no matter if you’re from inside the state of Georgia or outside of Georgia, you’re going to be a Georgia legend,” said linebacker Nolan Smith. “We came in to be legendary, be special … I want to leave my mark. I don’t just want to be another University of Georgia player.”
And so the pressure falls on Kirby Smart, the coach the Bulldogs hired off Saban’s Alabama staff to duplicate the juggernaut of Tuscaloosa in Athens. Smart has nearly done it.
His relentless recruiting has given the Dawgs arguably the better roster. His system of development has maxed out the roster. His coaching style has delivered a 57-10 record the past five seasons. It’s just that four of those losses have come to Bama, including a month ago in the SEC title game.
Saban, 70, is 24-1 all-time against former assistants, a run that was first blemished earlier this season when Jimbo Fisher and Texas A&M upset the Tide. Alabama is the immovable force in the sport.
As Smart, 46, points out, the Tide aren’t just a Georgia problem.
“They’ve also been a problem and a thorn for any team they’ve played besides ours,” he said.
So Smart, smartly, tries to push the individual coaching battle aside. It serves no purpose.
“It will never be about he and I,” Smart said. “I know he won’t make it that and I won’t make it that, because that’s for you guys to do that.
“It’s about the players,” he continued. “It’s about those guys making plays and putting them in a position to be successful. [It’s about] the players that make the meaningful plays, the plays that are conversions — the red areas, the turnovers or not turnovers, the explosive plays that determine the outcomes of games, not he and I.”
They may not make the plays, but the coaches will design the schemes that will put two evenly matched clubs in position to succeed or fail.
Can Georgia get a pass rush on Alabama QB Bryce Young this time? Can the offense win a shootout with former walk-on Stetson Bennett at quarterback? Can Georgia simply find a way to beat a program that almost always finds a way to not get beat?
“We know we’ve got to play one of our best games,” Smart said.
They didn’t in Atlanta, watching their 12-0 season get dinged in a 41-24 Alabama rout. The Bulldogs are so talented though, BetMGM oddsmakers installed them as 3-point favorites anyway.
In a season with a loaded roster and a perfect regular season and every reason to think this, at least, will be different, there is no second place for Georgia or Kirby Smart. It has been too long. There are too many who care too much.
“Is it just another game?” Bennett said. “No, I’m not silly … I know it means a lot to a lot of people.”
Bennett and his teammates aren’t responsible for the past decades of Bulldog frustration. It’s just on them to end it.