LOS ANGELES — On the morning before Georgia’s highest-stakes bowl in 25 years, Kirby Smart did what coaches do prior to these postseason games up in down the college football food chain: pose for a photo op with the bowl trophy.
The hardware from the one Smart and the Bulldogs won last year – the Liberty Bowl – was on display this season on the second floor of the Butts-Mehre building outside the elevators on the way to the football offices.
No. 3 Georgia and thousands upon thousands of its fans have flown cross country for this New Year’s Day reward in the Rose Bowl against No. 2 Oklahoma.
Coach Kirby Smart in the final news conference prior to the 5:10 p.m kickoff called it “a really important game to our program.” He was sitting next to his Oklahoma counterpart, Lincoln Riley, at The LA. Hotel Downtown.
“We’re anxious and ready for the game to be here,” Riley said. “It’s been a long time coming, lot of build up. I feel like our guys are excited, prepared, ready to play very well.”
A trip to Pasadena anytime for the “Granddaddy of Them All”–first played in 1902 – means you’ve had a very good year and these 12-1 Bulldogs certainly have, but the matchup against 12-1 Oklahoma isn’t the ultimate destination.
The winner from the national semifinals plays Clemson or Alabama in the Jan. 8 national championship game back in Atlanta’s Mercedes Benz Stadium.
“When you start talking about the magnitude of games, I think it’s truly important the way your structure is built, the way your infrastructure is, the way your culture is,” said Smart, whose team went 8-5 last year in his first season as head coach. “Big games are what your program was built for. You’ve built toward this all year, all off-season. And each game only gets bigger. They’ve been in a must-win situation for I don’t know how many weeks now. We’ve been in a must-win situation for a lot of weeks. There’s been a lot of games played. There is another opportunity to go out and play with physicality, play with good composure, and go for the best you can play.”
Oklahoma has been on this stage before – two years ago in a 37-17 semifinal loss to Clemson – in the Orange Bowl.
Baker Mayfield threw for 311 yards with a touchdown but had two interceptions and was sacked five times. There are some other key players still remaining – tight end Mark Andrews, left tackle Orlando Brown, defensive end D.J. Ward and safety Steven Parker.
Mayfield, the Heisman Trophy winner, dealing with flu-like symptoms this week and being limited some in practice, has been the biggest news related to the game.
“We’re confident in where Baker’s at and being ready to play well for us,” Riley said.
Georgia is 30-19-3 in bowl games – the third most bowl wins nationally – but this is its first time in the College Football Playoff, now in its fourth season.
“At the end of the day, it’s football,” senior running back Sony Michel said. “You’ve got to go out there and play football. We’re still going to put on our pads the same way, but at the end of the day we’re going to go out there and compete.”
It’s Georgia’s biggest bowl game since the Sugar Bowl in the 1982 season when the Bulldogs lost to Penn State and a chance to win the national championship.
The Bulldogs last played in a top-tier bowl in the 2007 season in the Sugar Bowl, but had not been able to play on the sport’s ultimate stage, one of the reasons why Georgia moved on from Mark Richt and turned to Smart, who had a championship experience as Alabama defensive coordinator. His job was to get the players to buy into what he was selling.
“They may see it as they were completely happy with winning nine, 10 games a year, and that’s what I call complacency,” Smart said. “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.”
On Sunday, after a week of bowl activities, both teams returned to their normal pregame routines except for team photos at Rose Bowl Stadium.
“One of the hardest things to do as a coach is manage that emotion and anxiety building into such a great game like this,” Smart said. “We’re excited and ready to go play.”