Thursday, January 27, 2022

Orange Bowl 2021: Georgia must flush crushing unease of Alabama loss in hopes of bouncing back vs. Michigan

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. — Somewhere between here and Atlanta, Georgia left its football manhood. That’s another way to set up the biggest question going into the College Football Playoff semifinal on Friday: Has No. 3 Georgia successfully flushed No. 1 Alabama, and all the embarrassment that came with its 41-24 loss earlier this month, as it prepares for its Orange Bowl showdown with No. 2 Michigan?

A team that forcefully proved over the 2021 season that it was No. 1 in the land and fielding the best college defense in decades somehow couldn’t get out of Mercedes-Benz Stadium with its reputation intact. The Crimson Tide didn’t just beat the Bulldogs, they kicked them — their generational defense in particular — to the curb.

Sneak a peek at defensive tackle Jordan Davis from that game. Georgia’s Bednarik Award winner (nation’s best defender) was a non-factor. Yes, Alabama quarterback and Heisman Trophy winner Bryce Young was brilliant getting the ball out quick. So was offensive coordinator Bill O’Brien, who drew up the game plan.

Georgia’s defense stunted and/or blitzed on almost every down. Almost every time, defenders who had otherwise laid waste to a season’s worth of opponents were easily picked up. For the first time this season, the Dawgs had no sacks.  

That doesn’t mean Michigan will achieve the same thing. Cade McNamara isn’t Young, for starters. However, UM does enter with the nation’s best offensive line. At least that’s what the Joe Moore Award signifies. 

That’s what leads one to wonder whether Georgia has rid itself of that Alabama performance. It does mean there is somewhat of a blueprint out there to beat the Dawgs.

“It’s hard to say blueprint because if it only happens one game in a year, it obviously didn’t work too well for too many other people,” Michigan offensive coordinator Josh Gattis said. “But it does give you a little bit of confidence.”

It also means Georgia has something to prove — that it has restored its football virility.

“There’s not going to be anything casual about this game,” coach Kirby Smart said.

There was too much casual about the last game.  

Georgia did enough during the season that it could “afford” to lose that Alabama game. The SEC Championship Game truly was just for CFP seeding. Just don’t tell the Dawgs. The result still stings.

Since the BCS era started in 1998, Georgia is only the fifth team to make it into a BCS/CFP game following a loss. That’s five out of 64 slots. Only one of the prior four teams coming in after a loss have won it all (Alabama, 2017). Yup, there’s the Tide again.

Forget asking whether Texas is back. Will the same Georgia team that strafed college football for most of the season show up again? The Dawgs are saying all the right things.

“We went to the doctor, seen what hurt us, what we didn’t do, how we didn’t execute,” Georgia linebacker Nakobe Dean said. “We worked on that.”

“I feel like any game I lost, especially in college, even in high school, it still hits me every once in a while when I think about it really,” Davis added. “You know, you’ve just got to keep moving forward.”

There is so much wrapped up in this challenge. Kirby’s Quest: The Georgia coach has won a semifinal game and played for a national title (2017) but hasn’t reached the summit. Whether he has to go through Nick Saban again to get there is less important at the moment than what Georgia team comes out of the tunnel on Friday.

By comparison, Michigan has already overcome its monster, beating Ohio State to end the regular season. The last memory we have of Georgia is Smart going 0-4 against Saban. That shouldn’t matter Friday, but it does. That zero hangs like a big, ol’ donut above Smart.

Sooner or later in this playoff, it seems the Dawgs are going to have to score 35+ points to win a game. Alabama sort of proved that. It’s why a large swath of the Georgia fan base is clamoring for JT Daniels to replace Stetson Bennett IV. Daniels may have more stars next to his name in recruiting history, but teams haven’t been able to count on him due to injuries.

I asked Smart this week if he had a plan to play Daniels.

“If the situation is right and if he is healthy enough,” the coach replied.

Cryptic enough for you?

Bennett might as well be the team spokesman at this point. He sat stern-faced on a Zoom call with reporters this week and answered every question with a rather large, obvious chip on his shoulder.

Forget how he or his teammates played in that SEC title game. It’s obvious Bennett is tired of hearing it.

“You can’t put any value on people who really have no clue what they’re talking about,” Bennett said. “I wouldn’t listen to myself if I was giving a speech on heart surgery. Not comparing football to heart surgery, but it’s the same kind of gist. So, why would I listen to somebody who doesn’t do this for a living and just watches it happen?”

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