ATHENS -- Loran Smith has been attending and covering Georgia football games for half a century. Late on Monday afternoon, the unofficial Bulldogs historian sat in his office in the athletics building and took stock.
“This is the most emotionally draining season I can remember,” he said.
And it’s still not over.
This Georgia team has played 10 games, and so many have come down to the wire that by now they run together.
Well, OK, the last one stands out a bit.
“I suddenly realized how Florida felt on Belue-to-Scott,” Smith said.
The wild and improbable final minute of last week’s loss at Auburn was just the cap -- maybe the cap -- to a wild, emotionally exhausting season.
The season is one of contrasting sideline reaction shots:
The victory over LSU, when Georgia’s sideline reacted to Zach Mettenberger’s final incompletion like the Bulldogs had won the national championship.
The freak touchdown at Auburn: head coach Mark Richt’s full body on the ground, defensive line coach Chris Wilson collapsing as if he’d been shot, defensive coordinator Todd Grantham burying his head in his hands.
Georgia has now played six games where the margin of victory has been less than six points. That’s the most in one season since 2005. This year’s total doesn’t include the win over South Carolina, which required a late fourth-quarter touchdown to push to 11.
Even the blowouts weren’t blowouts the whole way. The Appalachian State game was a one-possession game at halftime, and North Texas was tied at 21 in the third quarter.
And it’s all been against the backdrop of a ridiculous run of injuries. The tone was set on the second offensive drive of the season, at Clemson, when star receiver Malcolm Mitchell tore his ACL celebrating Todd Gurley’s touchdown run. Gurley also strained his quad on the run. At that point, Georgia should’ve known what was to come.
Senior guard Chris Burnette, who got married last year, said this season has “aged me by five years.”
“Honestly, it’s been real exciting. I feel like being part of a team that is so resilient has been so special,” he said. “Regardless of the outcome, I think that it says a lot, that I’ve been on a team that just doesn’t quit. I think regardless of what the outcomes were, I think guys are learning some lessons from these games.”
What has Burnette learned?
“Adversity builds character, definitely,” he said. “And you can never stop fighting. Saturday was just a perfect example of never quitting, regardless of what the situation was.”
They’ve been called the “Cardiac Dogs” on ESPN -- more than a month ago. They’ve lost a game after a controversial targeting penalty (Vanderbilt), lost another on a desperation pass (Auburn) and barely won a game on an overtime fumble (Tennessee). They’ve beaten two top-10 teams (LSU and South Carolina) and lost to two more (Missouri and Auburn.)
Smith pointed out that there were a bunch of emotional games during the 1980 championship season, and a lot of close games. But they won them.
“In any given year it’s hard to win all the close games,” Smith said.
There were also injuries in 1980. But they didn’t lose Herschel. This year they lost Herschel. And Herschel’s backup.
After the Clemson game, offensive coordinator Mike Bobo said, “People are gonna feel like the season’s lost, but it’s not.”
He was right. Georgia won the next four, including two over South Carolina and LSU, to vault right back into the national championship picture.
But then came the injury-marred overtime win at Tennessee, where in retrospect the season was basically lost. Georgia lost the next two, then beat Florida, and then finally saw the division title hopes sail away on a freak play on The Plains.
“When you go through spring ball, and you go through summer workouts, you go through winter workouts, you don’t picture your season with the injuries. With nine guys leaving on defense. You don’t really picture that. It’s kind of tough to overcome playing in this league,” junior cornerback Damian Swann said. “It’s been a wild season. But it’s been a great one to learn from and move forward from. I think it’s gonna help us in the long run.”
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