Take heart, Georgia fans. The best is yet to come.
Even though the Bulldogs’ loss to Alabama in overtime for the national championship Monday hurt pretty badly — and will for a while — title-game history tells us Georgia will likely make it to the biggest game of the season again sooner rather than later.
Since the BCS era started in 1998 and transitioned into the College Football Playoff format in 2014, only five of 40 teams that played in the national title game were schools that made just one trip within that time frame. The most recent squad in that category was the 2012 Notre Dame team that lost to the Crimson Tide, which was the third of Alabama’s five national championships since 2009 for coach Nick Saban.
Three of the other five schools on the list include Tennessee in 1998 (BCS national champions), Virginia Tech (1999) and Nebraska (2001). All three of these programs are currently in a rebuilding mode.
And yes, it was painful for Georgia fans to see Alabama freshman quarterback Tua Tagovailoa launch a perfect spiral in overtime, right into the hands of his target DeVonta Smith in stride for the walk-off victory. However, Bulldogs fans shouldn’t linger too long on the sour feeling of losing this one.
Things might be even better for Georgia in 2018, despite losing the two-headed running back monster of seniors Sony Michel and Nick Chubb, along with senior linebacker Lorenzo Carter. And though he has made no official statement yet, junior Roquan Smith is likely to leave early to be a high selection in the NFL draft.
The Bulldogs have stockpiled talent on both sides of the ball, along with a No. 1-ranked recruiting class shaping up for 2018.
And recent history shows the school on the losing end of national championship games in 2015 and 2016 went on to win it all the next season. The Crimson Tide lost the championship matchup just one year ago when Gainesville High grad Deshaun Watson orchestrated a marvelous last-minute drive and hit receiver Hunter Renfroe in the front of the end zone for Clemson’s winning score in the closing seconds. The year before, Alabama won a high-scoring battle, 45-40, against Clemson, despite Watson’s 405 passing yards and four touchdown throws.
During the BCS era, Florida State won the championship in 1999 after falling in the inaugural championship game of the now-extinct BCS era to Tennessee in 1998. Since then, the Seminoles also won the national title in 2013.
Losing hurts all around for Georgia, especially the players and coaches who across the board poured their hearts and souls into attempting to get the Bulldogs their first national title since 1980. However, it wasn’t meant to be in 2017. The Bulldogs weren’t able to hold on, despite twice leading by 13 against the Crimson Tide.
It may be premature to compare Georgia to Alabama, given the Crimson Tide is on a championship roll and making a strong case for the most dominant dynasty in college football history. However, the wide range of positive signs for the future make the Bulldogs a strong candidate for being a championship contender for many years, maybe the next decade, to come.
Second-year Georgia coach Kirby Smart made it clear while speaking in his postgame press conference that his program isn’t going to fade as a national power. Smart’s optimism about the future is backed up by facts.
In two years, the Bulldogs’ coach has completely changed the culture from the previous regime of Mark Richt, where winning 10 games every season was enough the satisfy the masses for more than a decade before grumblings for change grew too loud for the school’s administration to ignore.
The Bulldogs’ recruits, most of whom have already signed for 2018, have all the makings of a group that in the future can quickly fill the holes created by a dominant departing senior class. The Bulldogs during the early signing period inked three of the top 10 national prospects, according to Rivals.com, with quarterback Justin Fields (No. 2 nationally), running back Zamir White (No. 7) and interior offensive lineman Jamaree Salyer (No. 9) all coming to Athens.
Georgia can sign five more players on the traditional signing day Feb. 7, so with the enormous momentum of the program it can afford to be very selective about which players to bring on board.
I know it may be a stretch as far as early rosy predictions go, but it’s entirely possible Georgia could be more talented next year. D’Andre Swift and Elijah Holyfield, who have both seen playing time, will be the premier running backs next year to take over for Chubb and Michel.
And if Smith declares for the draft (which he should, if he’s getting good advice), the entire starting linebacker unit will need to be replaced. However, Smart has recruited extremely well and has a good long-term vision for what he’ll need in the future to plug holes.
Junior defensive linemen Jonathan Ledbetter and Trenton Thompson have announced plans to return for their senior seasons, making the defensive line look like a real strength next year.
It’s clear from his passion that Smart learned a lot while working under Saban for so many years at Alabama.
Even though the Crimson Tide has plenty of firepower returning in 2018, so do the Bulldogs. Look for this battle to continue for possibly many years to come.
And if you’re a Georgia fan, realize even better days are in the future after what everyone knows was a remarkable 2017 campaign.
Bill Murphy is sports editor of The Times. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or @Bill_Murphy313 on Twitter.