The most surprising thing I experienced upon moving from south Louisiana to Gainesville last August wasn’t the rolling, hilly landscape or the actual changing of seasons — it was the temperament of Georgia football fans.
After being raised in an LSU household and later covering the school’s athletic teams in college, I was accustomed to being surrounded by fans too spoiled to ever be happy, too delusional to ever be disappointed or too inebriated to know a touchdown from a touchback.
But Bulldog faithful — at least the ones I’ve met in my short time here — seem to operate in a state of constant dread.
In the midst of this once-undefeated season, they wrung their hands in angst over rightfully being No. 1 in the College Football Playoff rankings and saw danger lurking around every corner, even as Georgia blew out opponent after opponent.
Perhaps it’s the result of Mark Richt fatigue, the weight of consistent 10-win, not-quite-good-enough seasons too much to bear (strangely, a situation I can apply directly to LSU and former coach Les Miles). Or maybe Atlanta pro sports franchises have just conditioned them to expect heartbreak.
Either way, Bulldogs’ fans fears finally came to fruition last Saturday with a demoralizing, 40-17 loss at rival Auburn that prompted the team’s plummet from No. 1 to No. 7 in Tuesday’s CFP rankings.
While it would be fitting for such a fatalistic bunch of fans to declare Georgia’s season over following the beatdown, the team’s goals are all still very much attainable.
Most importantly, the Bulldogs’ path to the playoff is quite simple: Win and you’re in.
That starts with the final two regular-season games against much-improved Kentucky and always-pesky Georgia Tech. Then comes the SEC Championship Game in Atlanta, where Georgia (9-1) will finally clash with top-ranked Alabama or get another shot at No. 6 Auburn.
The Iron Bowl will determine which squad wins the West and advances to the conference title game, and I’m sure many would argue the Bulldogs wouldn’t fare well against either team.
But in truth, last Saturday’s events formed the perfect storm for a Georgia loss. Surging Auburn played its best game of the season, while the Bulldogs produced their worst outing by far in a brutally tough venue against a century-old rival.
Yes, Georgia seemed rattled in a hostile environment against the Tigers, perhaps the catalyst behind its string of uncharacteristic miscues that altered the complexion of the game.
A dropped walk-in touchdown, and another sure score negated by poor protection. Costly, and at times bizarre, penalties. Coaching mismanagement that led to a missed field goal. And that was all in the first half alone.
Despite all those mistakes, coach Kirby Smart’s squad trailed just 16-7 at halftime before the backbreaking gaffes resurfaced. After forcing a quick punt to open the third quarter, Mecole Hardman fumbled it back to the Tigers 23 yards from their end zone.
Auburn capitalized with a touchdown then got another short field after a big punt return and personal foul penalty on Georgia’s Sony Michel. The Tigers went 34 yards in two plays and, just like that, had a commanding 30-7 lead.
It’s not as if true freshman quarterback Jake Fromm, who faced constant pressure, played terribly and validated those who claim he’s the weak link of a one-dimensional offense. Seeing Georgia’s dominant run game stall was worrisome, but if those earlier pass plays had gone for scores like they should have, Smart’s squad would have been ahead 21-9 in a totally different ballgame.
The Bulldogs, after two weeks of being heralded as the top team in the country, simply came unraveled on the biggest stage they had occupied this season.
Is the letdown enough to undo nine weeks of dominance? Anyone who suggests so is probably being too myopic.
This is still the same team that, in the CFP committee’s eyes, had the best overall resume in the country until this week. All but two of Georgia’s wins had come by 14 or more points, though its most precious pelt — No. 8 Notre Dame, which suffered a thrashing of its own last week at the hands of Richt-led, No. 3 Miami — now looks less attractive.
On top of that, taking a one-game sample to project for an entire season is reductive and foolish. Just look at No. 9 Ohio State, which suffered a 55-24 beating against unranked Iowa two weeks ago before demolishing No. 17 Michigan State 48-3.
These are still 18-to-22-year-olds, and fluctuations in quality of play are not all that uncommon.
If anything, the loss to Auburn could be beneficial for the Bulldogs. After running roughshod through the first two-thirds of the schedule and being lauded as the No. 1 team in the nation, perhaps this was just the kind of gut-check Georgia needed if it wants to win a championship.
The road to one, of course, still runs through Auburn or Alabama. The Bulldogs, though certainly in need of much cleaner execution down the stretch, still have the tools to beat either team in what would be a virtual home game at Mercedes-Benz Stadium.
Alabama seems like the toughest draw, but the Crimson Tide is dealing with a rash of injuries on defense and possesses a one-dimensional offense, everyone’s favorite knock on Georgia.
Then there’s Auburn, which is on a roll but still capable of baffling performances like a five-fumble outing against FCS Mercer or a massive blown lead against No. 20 LSU, a team pollsters and the CFP committee alike seem to forget lost to Troy at home.
In Auburn’s case, beating a good team twice in the same season is incredibly difficult (my alma mater’s 2011 season comes to mind). If a rematch occurs, motivation will be easy to come by for Georgia, and Smart’s staff can game plan to cover the deficiencies it showed last Saturday.
A win against either team would set up the Bulldogs as a 12-1 SEC champion and a sure shoo-in for the playoff, especially with the chaos unfurling across the country in recent weeks.
The letdown Georgia fans have long dreaded has already come and gone. The only thing left for them to do now is hope.
Marcus Rodrigue is a sports reporter for The Times. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or @RodrigueReport on twitter.