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In Praise of the Almost-Champion Georgia Bulldogs

Coach Kirby Smart’s team lost the national title game to Alabama in heartbreaking fashion. That doesn’t mean its season was a disappointment, though—and the best for the Dawgs may be yet to come.

CFP National Championship presented by AT&T - Alabama v Georgia Photo by Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images

Georgia is a program familiar with heartbreak, having not captured a national championship since 1980. It is familiar with heartbreak against Alabama, most recently in the 2012 SEC title game. In Monday night’s national championship, however, Georgia suffered the most devastating heartbreak of all: The Dawgs fell to Bama 26-23 in an overtime thriller, a contest that Georgia at one point led 13-0.

These Bulldogs didn’t get to rejoice as the confetti rained down in Atlanta. They didn’t get to cap a fantastic campaign by hoisting a trophy at midfield. But that doesn’t mean their 2017 season was a disappointment. So before we bid adieu to college football for a while, let’s take a moment to celebrate the team that changed the entire trajectory of the Georgia program.

It starts with second-year head coach Kirby Smart, who proved this season that he’s not just another failed Nick Saban impersonator. Georgia caught some heat in 2015 for firing longtime coach Mark Richt—he of the perennial 9-3 record—but Smart has since made that decision look, well … wise. The former Bama defensive coordinator implemented his own version of the Process in Athens, leading the Bulldogs to a 13-2 record and an SEC title. He’s been cleaning up on the recruiting trail, too, having already signed six five-star prospects in the Class of 2018.

The Bulldogs entered the College Football Playoff championship game ranked eighth in rushing yards (267.4 yards per game) and sixth in yards per attempt (5.99), riding the best running back tandem in college football. Nick Chubb and Sony Michel ran Oklahoma into oblivion, rushing for 326 yards with five touchdowns in the Rose Bowl. Meanwhile, linebacker Roquan Smith was the human equivalent of a wrecking ball, anchoring a unit that ranked fifth in the FBS in scoring defense (15.7 points allowed per game). Smith earned the Butkus Award, SEC Defensive Player of the Year, and MVP of the SEC championship game—not bad for a guy who gets scared on rides at Disneyland.

Michel and Chubb, both seniors, will enter the NFL draft this spring, and Smith is likely to join them. They won’t soon be forgotten. Regardless of Monday’s outcome, these players leave a legacy of transforming Georgia into a national contender again. “We try to set the standard high so the younger guys know where to take it from here,” Michel told reporters after the title game. “We fell short today, and I think guys that’s coming back understand what it’s going to take plus more to get back here.”

This Georgia team also witnessed the rise of true freshman quarterback Jake Fromm, who morphed from an unproven game manager to a passer with an absurd level of confidence. Up until Alabama’s Tua Tagovailoa went into all-out legend mode on Monday night, Fromm seemed poised to be the story of the national championship.

Then there is kicker Rodrigo Blankenship, a.k.a. Glasses Kicker, a.k.a. “Hot Rod,” who may or may not actually be Ringer staff writer Shea Serrano. He drilled a 51-yard field goal in overtime, and may be the best interviewee in the country. Between Blankenship, Fromm, and freshman running back D’Andre Swift, Georgia has plenty of reasons to believe that this run was only just the beginning.

That won’t make this heartbreak hurt less, though. Smart got emotional in his postgame press conference when discussing the impact players like Chubb, Michel, Smith, and tackle Isaiah Wynn had on the program.

“I can’t put into words what these seniors mean,” Smart said. “And if we have that kind of leadership, there’s no doubt. The sky’s the limit. Because these guys are hungry. 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.”

Every Dawg has its day. For one of the most fun teams in Georgia history, though, that day just didn’t come on college football’s biggest stage.