There was nothing, however, to protect fans from the concussive impact of last weekend.
The football season didn’t officially end Saturday, it only seemed like it around here. Georgia and South Carolina drove themselves off the road traveling to the Volunteer State while Clemson received a nuclear wedgie in front of its stunned home fans.
A round of championship dreams all but dashed in one clean sweep.
Now we know conclusively that none of these promising teams will be competing for the BCS title in Pasadena, Calif., in January. We also know that none of their talented stars will be hoisting a Heisman Trophy in December.
All that’s left to hope for is to find some kind of back door to division titles as potential stepping stones to more glamorous bowls. It’s the same window dressing as every other normal season except that everyone knows something special was within reach.
“Everybody is looking at the big picture instead of just the moment,” said Clemson quarterback Tajh Boyd, snapping back into reality mode after his high-profile upstaging by Florida State counterpart Jameis Winston. “That’s what we’ve got to get back to.”
It is really hard to wrap your head around the sudden downturns of all three elite teams. The Georgia case might be the toughest to swallow, with an epidemic of catastrophic injuries to many of its best offensive players spoiling what was shaping up to be an epic campaign.
“It’s just one of those years,” a resigned Mark Richt said.
But injuries aren’t a good enough excuse to explain what happened Saturday at Vanderbilt, when the Bulldogs coughed up a 13-point lead in the fourth quarter to a Commodore team using a backup quarterback.
The Georgia defense remains substandard, but this loss can’t be blamed entirely on it (especially when one key player was ejected for a dubious targeting penalty and a critical fourth-down stop was negated by another overturned targeting call).
Dismal isn’t a strong enough word to describe the state of the Bulldogs’ special teams. A muffed punt and another botched punt snap were the decisive blows in the late stages, but Georgia also gave up a touchdown run to a kicker on a fake field goal. Those miscues translated to 21 of Vandy’s 31 points. These were inexcusable, unforced errors.
Simultaneous with Georgia’s demise came South Carolina’s unceremonious hiccup at Tennessee. Instead of capitalizing on the Bulldogs’ skid, the Gamecocks spit up a 21-17 lead to a pair of fourth-quarter field goals – losing its starting quarterback to injury and displaying some questionable timeout management down the stretch.
“I couldn’t sleep hardly a bit last night,” coach Steve Spurrier said the next day. “You always wonder whether you should have called this play or that play or just one play here or there when you lose a game like this.”
Now instead of going to Missouri this week with a chance to seize control of the SEC East, the Gamecocks must win just to keep back-door hopes alive. Missouri still has hurdles against Ole Miss and Texas A&M to clear, so nothing is set in stone.
“Even though we lost I don’t think anybody is down in the dumps,” Gamecocks lineman A.J. Cann said. “If anything we’re more focused because he have a big chance this weekend.”
There isn’t any one play or coaching call that Clemson coach Dabo Swinney could look back on with regret. The Tigers’ meltdown was a full-scale, 60-minute, 51-14 public shaming that no amount of second-guessing could fix.
“Florida State just outplayed us and outcoached us in every regard,” Swinney said. “Now we’ve just got to flush it and move on to Maryland. We had a great opportunity that we didn’t take advantage of. We never did anything to get our crowd behind us as we’d have liked. But we can’t let one game make or break our season.”
Credit Swinney for unyielding optimism. On Tuesday, he offered that a 10-game series with the Seminoles would be a toss-up. “They probably win five and we win five,” he said.
Sure, coach. Whatever you say.
With Florida State unlikely to lose two conference games the rest of the way, the Tigers have to settle on trying to win out to secure an at-large BCS bowl bid. That’s not bad incentive.
“This is a hurting football team. And I love that,” Swinney said. “We’re gonna be OK because these guys care.”
Honestly, all these teams are hurting and none of them want to quit. Winning out could still get an unranked 4-3 Georgia team into the SEC Championship game, especially with its primary weapon Todd Gurley expected to return for the Florida game. Same could happen for 5-2 South Carolina (though they need another Georgia loss to help). The SEC East is such a mess right now behind Mizzou that anything could still happen.
“Everybody’s got two losses but Missouri, so it’s not impossible,” Richt said. “I’m going to fight ’til it’s over, and I think the coaches and the players feel the same way.”
It just takes some getting used to, the realization of what everybody is left fighting for at this point. Because of all the tales that might still get written, the saddest one is that 2013 will always be remembered around here for what might have been,