Georgia’s past two seasons under Kirby Smart have followed the same basic blueprint.
The Bulldogs start hot, suffer a blowout loss on the road in conference play and then still secure a berth in the SEC Championship Game with a shot to lock down a bid to the College Football Playoff.
Saturday’s 20-17 overtime loss to South Carolina gave some new twists to the formula. Instead of being on the road, the game was played in Sanford Stadium. Rather than a blowout, overtime was necessary. Most strikingly, while the Auburn game in 2017 and the LSU game in 2018 were expected to be close, the Bulldogs were three-touchdown favorites over the Gamecocks.
This loss may have been different, but one crucial element is the same. Even though Georgia’s record is no longer unblemished, all of the team’s goals are still within grasp.
“I’ve been a part of a lot of good football teams that have lost a game,” head coach Kirby Smart said Saturday. “You have got to go out, execute, and be able to play at a high level week to week in this conference. We’ve got to do this. We’ve got to help them as a coaching staff.”
During Smart’s time at Alabama, the Crimson Tide won four national championships. Only the 2009 squad went undefeated. Alabama suffered a loss as a two-touchdown home favorite to Texas A&M in 2012 and as a touchdown favorite to Ole Miss in 2015, and both seasons ended in national titles.
More recently, the 2017 Alabama national championship team lost to Auburn in its regular season finale and didn’t even win the SEC West. The year before, eventual national champion Clemson suffered a home loss to 5-4 Pittsburgh.
All this to say that a home loss to South Carolina doesn’t disqualify Georgia from playoff discussion. What it does mean, however, is that the margin of error for the Bulldogs has evaporated.
That applies to all groups on the field. Take, for example, Georgia’s heralded offensive line which, despite its size, has struggled at times this season including against South Carolina.
“Everybody likes to talk about our offensive line being a dominating offensive line,” Smart said. “I’d love to talk about that. But they’ve got to do it. We’ve got to go out there and occupy the line of scrimmage and win the line of scrimmage, over and over. In this league, it’s tough to do that all the time.”
One of those offensive linemen is junior Ben Cleveland. His postgame message can apply both to the offensive line and the team as a whole.
“Whenever something like this happens, you don’t point fingers and move further apart,” Cleveland said. “You come closer together as a group and make sure your brothers know that you’ve got their back.”
Cleveland has been around for the regular season losses each of the past two years. He, as do the rest of the juniors and seniors, know firsthand that a loss doesn’t sink the season.
Quarterback Jake Fromm has started all but one game since the start of the 2017 season, including the losses to Auburn, LSU and South Carolina. He said the recognition of what could still happen was key in the rebound of the past two years.
“We understood what we wanted to do as a team,” Fromm said. “I still think the goals are still there for us to do whatever we want to do as a team. We have to come together, everybody get on the same page and move forward.”
The signal caller also noted that the rallying of the players has to be done by said players. As for the coaches, Smart said it’s up to them to emphasize that the Bulldogs are still one team.
“The message is we’re a team, we stick together,” Smart said. “When things get thick, we come together even better. The outcome of this game affects everybody outside of our building. Inside our building, we just get tighter and we’ll get better.”
The path forward for Georgia is clear. All of its goals — an SEC and SEC East title, a College Football Playoff berth and a national championship — are still attainable.
In order to get there, however, the Bulldogs know that from now on, it’s week by week.
“You’ve just got to take it week in and week out and win every single football game from here on out,” Fromm said.