Yeah, the Georgia Bulldogs heard the chatter. Of course they did. How could they not? Despite their pretentious denials, college football players read the social media comments and watch the TV analysts tear them apart. Even coaches hear it, in those few moments between film study and recruiting.
So these Bulldogs were not oblivious to the questions — and “questions” might be being charitable — of their football manhood.
To be fair, this was of their own doing, losing at home to a decidedly average South Carolina team, three weeks ago, then slopping around in a rain-soaked win over Kentucky. That, combined with a week off, gave the Bulldogs plenty of time for self-reflection.
Their entire season — one of national championship aspirations — was on the line Saturday against Florida. A loss would have all but mathematically eliminated them from winning the SEC East, which in turn would have eliminated them from the College Football Playoff.
Publically, the Bulldogs said all the right things about blocking out “outside noise.” Privately, they used the doubt as motivation.
“You have to acknowledge it’s there,” said quarterback Jake Fromm. “You can choose to listen to it, and we can fall apart. Or we can choose to not listen to it, and we can gel together as a team. That’s what we did. That’s what we chose to do, come into our locker room and say, ‘Hey, guys, this is what we want to be about. Let’s get to the next step, and let’s show what we’re all about.”
The Bulldogs did just that by beating the Gators 24-17.
“Coming into this game, win or lose, we wanted our leaders to guide us,” said Georgia coach Kirby Smart. “We talked long and hard throughout the week about composure, discipline and physicality. We tried to really make it simple for our guys — don’t lose your composure, no stupid penalties, no fighting, no chipiness, discipline. Just do your job and then physicality is who we are. We embrace that each day. We had guys stand up and talk about it.”
Smart then told the players the story of sprinter Michael Johnson. Smart was a junior defensive back for the Bulldogs in 1996 when Johnson became the first man ever to win Olympic gold medals in the 200 and 400 meters. Johnson wore gold shoes, custom made with Johnson’s input, a bold statement of his expectations. In the video retrospective, Johnson said:
“I never saw it as a gamble. I saw it more as I proved to the world what I knew that I could do.”
For the Bulldogs, this stage wasn’t exactly global. But it was big enough. The four of the top five teams were idle. Clemson played Wofford. Georgia-Florida was the only marquis matchup of the day.
“I really thought our players embraced the challenge,” Smart said. “Blocked the outside noise. We know that we control how we play. We control what we do by how we play and the outside noise is just that. Our kids grinded and worked hard so I’m proud of them. Played really physical, played really hard.”
Not that they played flawlessly. A holding call on receiver Matt Landers negated a 37-yard touchdown run by D’Andre Swift. Fromm barely missed Lawrence Cager wide open in the back of the end zone. J.R. Reed came close to intercepting a Kyle Trask pass. Any one of these plays would have sealed the game. All of them could have turned it into a blowout.
Instead, after the Gators pulled to within seven points with 3:11 left in the game, the Bulldogs had to grind out one more first down to put the game away. A delay of game penalty to start the drive complicated matters.
A pass to Demetrius Robertson and a run by Swift left Georgia facing third-and-7 with 2:53 left, the Gators having called the final timeout.
The conventional play here is to run the football. Get a first down and the ball game is over. Fall short and you at least burn 40 seconds off the clock before punting. Conservative, yes. But safe.
Playing it safe has been, for better or worse, Smart’s M.O. So of course they would run the football, right?
Wrong. Smart trusted his offensive coordinator James Coley to do whatever it took to get a first down. Coley trusted Fromm, who had played brilliantly, to make one more play. Fromm trusted tight end Eli Wolf, who had a costly drop against South Carolina, to make the most important catch of his college career, not that there were many opportunities for Wolf in his three years at Tennessee.
“It was a big-time call,” Fromm said. “It’s really kind of a gutsy call. You throw the ball and go for the win knowing they’re a little deficient in the secondary with the coverage they’re playing, or do you play it safe and burn 40 seconds off the clock. We chose to go for the win and go for the dagger.”
Smart and Coley guessed that Florida defensive coordinator Todd Grantham would load up with pressure. They all trusted the offensive line to give Fromm ample time, so they didn’t keep Wolf in for pass protection.
Grantham played a five-man front and blitzed the middle linebacker. That left Wolf open on an out-route toward the Florida sideline. Fromm was pressured and had to throw off his back foot. Still, he delivered the pass on target and Wolf snatched it out of the air and turned up field before going down inbounds. Just like that, the Bulldogs had secured victory, as the Gators could no longer stop the clock.
This was Smart’s gold shoes moment. He didn’t see it as a gamble. He saw it as an opportunity.
“If we don’t complete that pass, y’all are all sitting here saying, ‘What’d you do that for?’” Smart said. “But you’ve got a chance to win the game and that’s the life we lead as coaches. We make decisions based on what gives us the best chance to win the game.”
The Bulldogs reasserted themselves as a playoff contender. Sure, much more work lies ahead. But the path is cleared. The first College Football Playoff poll comes out this week, and the top five are almost a lock in some order: Ohio State, Alabama, LSU, Clemson and Penn State. The Bulldogs, with wins over Notre Dame and Florida, should be right behind the lead pack.
“Look, we have not arrived,” Smart said. “We have to get better. There are a lot of things we have to work on and we’ve got some really tough teams coming up to play, and that’s what I reiterated to our guys.”