HOOVER, Ala. — The Georgia Bulldogs have gone 24-5 the past two seasons. Won a Southeastern Conference championship and played for another. Virtually got their fingertips on a national title, only to have it stolen away at the last moment.
High-grade recruits are flocking to Athens. There hasn’t been a better time to be a Bulldog since the heady days of Herschel Walker in the early 1980s, when the program won its lone wire-service-era national championship 39 years ago.
Most coaches would sacrifice a graduate assistant for that kind of success. But Georgia, despite its surge of recent success, lives and plays like everyone else in the SEC — in Alabama’s considerable shadow.
It’s a cold place to be.
Georgia coach Kirby Smart, a longtime Saban disciple as an assistant at LSU, with the Miami Dolphins and at Bama, knows that better than anyone.
During his Q&A session Tuesday at SEC media days, someone asked Smart about Saban’s former assistants being 0-16 against him.
“I’m well aware,” Mr. 0-2 said, half-joking, half-chafed.
“We understand how close we've been to taking the next step,” Smart said. “And although 24-5 the last two seasons is good, it's not good enough. It's not where we expect to be at the University of Georgia.”
According to the British Mountaineering Council (yes, that really is a thing), more than 4,000 people have reached the summit of Mount Everest since 1953. That’s an average of about 60 per year. That’s a lot, but nearly 1,000 people per year make the attempt.
Getting near the peak is an incredible achievement. Until you come up short a couple of times. Then frustration certainly has to take over.
The sweet agony for Georgia is that very little of the mountain is left to climb. Getting close to the championship and not quite capturing it is almost worse than not coming close at all.
Consider those two losses to Alabama. The Bulldogs led 20-10 going into the fourth quarter of the 2018 CFP Championship Game (in Atlanta, no less) before Bama rallied to force overtime, 20-20. Georgia scored first on a field goal, but Alabama got a winning touchdown on a 41-yard pass from Tua Tagovailoa to Amite’s DeVonta Smith.
Fast-forward 11 months, to Atlanta again, and the SEC Championship Game. With a CFP semifinal berth on the line (at least for Georgia as Bama probably had one already locked up), the Bulldogs led 28-14 in the third quarter before the Crimson Tide rallied for three touchdowns and a 35-28 victory.
You might think the Dawgs, who went on and laid an unmotivated egg in a 28-21 Sugar Bowl loss to Texas to finish 11-3, might need a moment to reset, reflect, regather for another climb.
Nope. Not Georgia. In the spirit of the 50th anniversary of Apollo 11 and the race to the moon, the program is consumed by “go fever.”
“For us, pressure is a reflection of ambition,” Smart said. “We put a lot of pressure on ourselves day in and day out. The stress and pressure we feel emanates from our building, from our coaches, from our players putting it on each other, from our university. We apply it every day. We're always looking for the aggregate of marginal gains.”
The aggregate of marginal gains. He really is Smart.
The mantra for Georgia this season is two words, two syllables: Do more.
“Our mission is to bridge that gap, you know, by the actions we take,” Smart said. “Hence the words 'do more.’ Those words require action.”
Georgia quarterback Jake Fromm, looking like a GQ model Tuesday in his bow tie and monogrammed shirt, said he has tried to embody that mission statement.
“The whole offseason for us has been about doing more,” said Fromm, surrounded by reporters, one of the star players on one of the SEC’s starring teams. “That’s what I’m trying to do to take this team to the next level. How can I be the best leader for this football team, the best teammate? I’m trying to finish out through fall camp and hit it running going into the season.”
But how do you do more than what Georgia has done? The Bulldogs had the No. 3 recruiting class in 2017, No. 1 in 2018, No. 2 in 2019. Can they possibly be that much more physical, that much more physically tough, execute that much better?
Georgia returns 11 starters, plus both kickers. The schedule has its challenges with Notre Dame visiting Athens on Sept. 21, the annual game in Jacksonville against Florida on Nov. 2 and at Auburn on Nov. 16.
The Bulldogs could stumble maybe once, as they did in their 36-16 loss at LSU last season, and still be in position to make the CFP if it can beat you-know-who for the SEC championship.
“Inevitably,” Smart said, “with enough opportunities, anything can happen.”
True enough. Still the season ahead begs the question for Georgia: If not now, when?