Coming into Wednesday’s Sugar Bowl matchup against Baylor, optimism was hard to come by among Georgia fans.
The Bulldogs were sitting out more starters than seemingly anyone else in their bowl matchup. Looking ahead, the team is slated to lose at least All-Americans JR Reed and Andrew Thomas, with star running back D’Andre Swift likely right behind them. Quarterback Jake Fromm appeared to be on the decline during the regular season, providing little hope for immediate success even if he does decide to return for his senior year, in addition to his top receiving threat from the season in Lawrence Cager graduating.
Fromm’s demise seemed all but assured.
But then the game was played, and the groaning and lamenting of an apparent “lost season” started to die away, leaving Georgia faithful amped back up on the offseason drug of choice for all college football fans: hope.
Rather than the familiar faces of the past couple of seasons, the Sugar Bowl win featured newer stars like game MVP George Pickens and Zamir White on offense, and Azeez Ojulari and Richard LeCounte on defense.
Even Fromm flashed some of his early career brilliance against Baylor — looking more like the quarterback that led Georgia to a national championship game as a freshman than the one whose down game against South Carolina likely cost the Bulldogs a playoff berth this year.
There’s no guarantee that Fromm will return for his senior season, but even if he doesn’t, the future looks bright for the red and black.
When Kirby Smart was first hired away from Alabama, he was handed a championship-caliber roster, and he made the most of it. Nick Chubb and Sony Michel helped to carry Georgia into its first College Football Playoff appearance, and Smart proved he could make a winner out of a roster largely compiled by his predecessors.
Less proven was Smart’s capability to win big games with his own guys — a reputation that was slowly starting to build following back-to-back losses in the SEC Championship over the last two years, as well as a defeat at the hands of Texas in last year’s Sugar Bowl and an 0-4 record against LSU and Alabama (the cream of the SEC West crop of late) since arriving in Athens.
And while beating Baylor in a game that means next to nothing in the playoff era doesn’t alleviate all those concerns, at the very least it has earned Smart a bit of a cushion.
Now it’s time to look to the future.
With a talented and young defensive corps that held the Bears offense to just 14 points, Georgia’s championship window appears to have been wedged open for at least a few more years. Those worried about the Bulldogs falling out of relevancy following a decreased quality of play down the stretch this year need look no further than the end of season AP rankings, which will almost certainly have Georgia at No. 4 following Oklahoma’s historically embarrassing blowout loss to LSU inside Mercedes-Benz in the Peach Bowl.
If Georgia’s regular season ends in disappointment again next year, Smart’s long-term effectiveness will once again be up for debate, but for now, his team’s inspired performance in the Sugar Bowl has done more than enough to earn another year of faith.
The stars haven’t quite aligned for the Bulldogs in any of the last few seasons, but that doesn’t mean they won’t in future. And with so much young talent locked up for at least one more year, that future starts now.