ATLANTA — Nick Saban, Tua Tagovailoa and the Alabama Crimson Tide completed a comeback for the ages on Monday night at Mercedes-Benz Stadium and the result was a 26-23 overtime victory over the Georgia Bulldogs. Kirby Smart, Jake Fromm and company held a 20-7 lead midway through the third quarter and, for all the world, it appeared as if the team would claim its first national championship since Herschel Walker ran wild in Athens back in 1980. Within a matter of moments, however, the lead was gone, overtime arrived and, well, Tagovailoa delivered an all-time throw to send the Bulldogs up the road to campus with a soul-crushing loss.
At first glance, this may appear to be “just another” Atlanta sports collapse. After all, the Atlanta Falcons imploded in legendary fashion less than 12 months ago on football’s grandest stage and, for years, the Atlanta Braves operated as a regular season juggernaut that routinely came up empty in postseason situations. Still, a further look indicates that simply attributing the failings of the Southeast’s largest city to Georgia would be unwise and, in some ways, inaccurate.
For starters, the University of Georgia isn’t in Atlanta. That seems like an obvious caveat and, while the university’s campus is within a 75-mile trek of Mercedes-Benz Stadium, there are two FBS programs (Georgia Tech and Georgia State) that actually operate within the city limits. Of course, it has to be noted that Kirby Smart and company are backed by a gigantic fanbase that dwarfs that of any other collegiate program within Atlanta’s perimeter and that translates into many Atlanta sports fans crossing over into support of a university they either attended or followed closely for most of their lives.
In the Southeast, college sports take on another dimension and, while the SEC receives (justified) prodding for the “It Just Means More” slogan, it plays true in many cases. Because the obsession with the collegiate gridiron has existed for a long time, the college game often overrides any professional sporting venture in states like Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi and others, with an all-SEC national championship clash representing a great deal of that fervor. Comparing professional sports against college sports, particularly in this region, is a perilous exercise and, while the swath of Atlanta sports fans that also support Georgia is large, there are hundreds of thousands that call Atlanta “home” in a sporting sense with little to no tie to UGA, including active disdain in some corners.
That backdrop is important when taking a peek into the psyche of what transpired on Tuesday evening. For years, Georgia has been classified as a “sleeping giant” in the college football world, routinely underachieving when compared to its talent level and, even under the watchful eye of Mark Richt, the program peaked with an SEC title and was unable to reach national title-level success. 2017 didn’t always feel different in Kirby Smart’s maiden voyage but, by the end, the Bulldogs overcame wild circumstances in an epic Rose Bowl before assuming control in a de facto home game against the monolith that is Alabama.
Then, the wheels came off. Raekwon Davis picked off a Jake Fromm pass with the Tide down just 10 points, providing life to the sudden underdog and paving the way for what is already a legendary comeback engineered by true freshmen at both quarterback and running back. Alabama made the requisite plays to pull off the improbable and it has to be noted that Georgia aided them with costly mistakes along the way. In the same breath, it is important to step back and realize that, even in the midst of sorrow as a result of a brutal defeat, the future is extremely bright for the Bulldogs.
Smart’s recruiting prowess has been well documented in his short time in Athens and the cupboard is overflowing with talent after he dominated the first year of the early signing period. Even in the lean times, Georgia has been a recruiting monster and, under new and youthful leadership, the Bulldogs are now assembling a roster that can (and likely will) rival that of Alabama, Ohio State and the absolute powers of the sport. Beyond that, Fromm is just a true freshman and, even the loss of two outstanding running backs and some proven defensive talent shouldn’t be enough to swallow up what is a terrifyingly impressive future for the program.
In the years since Herschel Walker, Buck Belue and company claimed Georgia’s last title, only one Atlanta sports franchise picked up a win on the same plane, when the Braves knocked off the Indians to triumph in the 1995 World Series. While the parallels are tempting, especially for those without clear geographic knowledge or the desire for overarching nuance, the Georgia football program operates independently from the brutality experienced by the Falcons, Hawks and Braves in recent decades.
Will Georgia win the national title in the near future? Perhaps not, but with the way the program is currently built, the leadership in charge and a fertile recruiting base, the sky is absolutely the limit for the Kirby Smart era in Athens. The 2018 title game could theoretically provide a pivot point in either direction but, from the friendly confines of Mercedes-Benz Stadium on a Monday evening in January, brighter days appear to be ahead for a program that looks to be joining the uber-elite rather than being just another punchline in the state’s sports lore.