LOS ANGELES — The Rose Bowl is a destination Georgia football and its fans have been starving for.
What Bulldog Nation really craves, however, is for today’s semifinal against Oklahoma to be more than a stepping stone to next week’s College Football Playoff championship in Atlanta. They hope it’s the first step into a new era of dominance for Georgia.
“If people think this is the first and last time it’s going to be like this, they’re sadly mistaken,” said Georgia senior linebacker Lorenzo Carter.
Georgia has often found itself at the threshold of dynastic dreams never realized. None of the program’s greatest coaches was immune.
Wally Butts couldn’t sustain it after his great teams of the 1940s. Vince Dooley couldn’t extend it beyond the Herschel Walker years. Mark Richt couldn’t deliver the next level after showing such early promise.
It’s that last example that seems the most apt today. Georgia was in almost precisely this position 15 years ago.
In Richt’s second season at the helm in 2002, the Bulldogs went 12-1 against a more grueling schedule than this year’s team faced and finished the season ranked No. 3 in the nation but outside looking in under the old BCS system.
Georgia got back to the SEC championship two of the next three seasons, winning again in 2005. But they never could land one of the two spots in the national championship game. Richt’s teams averaged about 10 wins a year over 15 seasons, but injuries, a bad loss or the clock running out on the doorstep would always derail progress to the next level.
Thus, in came Kirby Smart two seasons ago to import an Alabama mentality that would elevate the Bulldogs’ championship mindset. Now here’s Georgia in the Rose Bowl playing for a shot at the national championship on essentially home turf in Atlanta. Did this program need the upheaval of a coaching change to boost them over the hump?
“Who knows what would have happened if things didn’t change,” said senior running back Nick Chubb. “We’d probably still be right here and we wouldn’t notice it. That’s kind of a hard question to ask and answer.”
“I don’t know,” said Carter. “It’s always tough when you get a big shake-up like that. I think the good thing about it was everybody bought in and everybody made sure that we didn’t do anything out of character. We trusted the coaches that came in and they’ve done a good job.”
Smart – like his counterpart, Lincoln Riley, on the other side of Rose Bowl Stadium on Monday – didn’t inherit a broken franchise in need of rebuilding. His challenge to reach this stage was more subtle.
“You’ve got to win the players over because they may not see it as there was a problem,” Smart said of what he faced two years ago. “They may see it as they were completely happy with winning nine, 10 games a year, and that’s what I call complacency. You’ve got to be able to make some changes and make them in the right direction to turn the program around. Whether it’s new ideas, new energy, whatever it is. There’s different ways to do things, and I think we all realize that.
“In our case, that was probably the greatest challenge was not accepting what had been done before as the norm and convincing the players that are currently on the team that we can do better. We can do better things, and we can improve. How do we do that? Well, we do it this way. That may not be the right way in their mind. You’ve got to convince them it is. Sometimes that takes more work than just coming in where a team’s hungry, and more aggressive and listening to what you have to say.”
This Georgia team has followed the lead of a dedicated group of upperclassmen who weren’t complacent, passed up the chance to make money and chose to come back to fulfill a vision of how they wanted to finish their college careers. Mixed in with some fresh talent and Smart’s philosophy, they are checking off bigger goals.
“You could kind of see it,” Chubb said of a season that has played out they way he’d foreseen when he led a pack of peers in returning. “It was a little blurred, but you’ve got to work for it.”
Said Carter: “I’m proud to be able to say I came back and I was a part of this team. I’m excited to see the future that they have, all the young guys.”
While this is the last chapter for a substantial group of Georgia’s best players, the question is whether this is the beginning of even bigger things for the Bulldogs. Can Georgia develop the consistency to turn into a championship and playoff regular the way Alabama and Clemson have?
Smart is certainly delivering on the recruitment front, already restocking the talent pool with arguably the bulk of the best class Georgia has ever landed in last week’s early signing period. They’ll need to develop in ways Georgia wasn’t able to with a string of talented top-10 classes under Richt.
“I think it’s the real thing,” graduate senior John Atkins of the level this team has taken Georgia. “They’ve got the recipe now and the guys next year know to follow it and know what it takes. Leadership, physicality and composure – same things we’ve been preaching all year.”
Chubb feels the same way.
“Hopefully they’ll keep doing it years forward,” he said. “Everything we went through this year, the guys coming next can see how you prepare. I think we set a great example for them to kind of follow the path. It means a lot to pave the way for other guys who can kind of follow in our footsteps. Look forward to seeing those guys in the same position.”
Chubb’s next words are music to the ears of anyone who bleeds red and black.
“In a few years,” he said, “Georgia can kind of be a dominant team.”