Georgia fans, I get it now.
After sitting in my wife’s grandmother’s house during last Monday night's Rose Bowl, watching the Dawgs take their fans through every range of football emotion known to man, I do get it.
After watching people actually shed tears once Sony Michel almost casually crossed the goal line for the game’s final score, I get it.
After driving through various parts of metro Atlanta and rural Georgia this week, including a journey through Watkinsville where I’ve seen more red flags with the big, black G flying around at one time than in my entire 11 years as a Georgia resident combined, I definitely get it.
Georgia football is a big, huge, colossal deal around here. Now let me give you a little backstory to my recent epiphany.
I’ll admit, upon my first few years here, I acted like a bit of a college football snob to Georgia fans. That’s because, as many of you now know, I come from Nebraska — home of five national championships, including back-to-back titles in the 1970s and 1990s. Although we’ve been on a 20-something year national relevance drought, I still took pleasure in making fun of some of ya’ll Georgia fans.
I couldn’t, for the life of me, understand why so much passion. Why so much vitriol. Why so much energy behind a football team that had won a grand total of two national championships, spaced out between 38 years — the last one coming before I reached my one-year birthday.
For God’s sake, Georgia Tech, the hated in-state rival, has been to college football’s holy grail since Georgia has. I didn’t understand what the big deal was.
I mean, at least for me, though Nebraska football has been a shadow of its former self, I still knew what a title — multiple titles — felt like. There are generations of UGA fans who cheer loudly and yet weren’t alive, or hadn’t uttered their first words when Herschel Walker was running wild through the SEC.
But then I started to get some perspective from some of you. You told me about the year after the 1981 Sugar Bowl when you had a shot at a second national title, only to be beaten by Todd Blackledge’s touchdown pass to Gregg Garrity at the end of the game. Scott Woerner was the one beaten on that play. His son, Charlie, is a tight end for the Dawgs now.
I’ve heard and seen some of the heartbreaks against Florida. I vaguely remember Auburn turning the sprinklers on to Georgia’s fans after the 20-16 win at Jordan Hare back in 1986. I recall my previous favorite Georgia team with Matthew Stafford and Knowshon Moreno, thinking they had what it took to win it all.
And, of course, I remember watching the 2012 SEC title game against Alabama. We won’t rehash it. But I know for a fact, if those last five seconds would’ve played out differently, Georgia’s national title drought would’ve ended against Notre Dame — and maybe, just maybe, the Mark Richt era would’ve took an alternative turn.
Again, Dawg fans, I get it. Ya’ll have had copious amounts of all-world talent come through Athens. You’ve gotten close more times than you’ve won it all. You’ve cringed while watching some of the state’s top talent slip through your fingers, only to find national championship success at other programs.
Georgia may be the college football program with the most national championship-type pedigree to not have won multiple national titles. So as Monday’s latest shot — the first chance at playing for it all in 30-something years — quickly approaches, I know why you’re making this such a big deal.
Alabama’s been-there-done-that so much, that it almost doesn’t feel like it needs another one. But Georgia? You’ve suffered enough. Add to that the fact that it seems like all of Georgia’s sports teams have shared in this championship drought, and I fully understand why you’re soaking these moments in like you are. I get why you opened up wallets to make your way to Pasadena.
I fully understand why you’ll do your best to make Mercedes Benz Stadium look like Sanford Stadium-West tonight. But I also get why there’s still some skepticism. You’ve gotten close so many times in so many ways, only to have it all snatched away. It’s hard to believe again when that happens too many times.
But Georgia fans, you can believe this time. Believe, not just in Monday’s potential national championship team, but believe in the trajectory of this program and where Kirby Smart has it going.
Thursday night, I travelled to Watkinsville to chat with 1980 team member, Tim Crowe. Crowe wore No. 91 and started on the defensive line for the Dawgs’ last national champion squad. He still remembers how he felt in those waning seconds of the 1981 Sugar Bowl against Notre Dame.
“It felt like those last three minutes went so slow,” Crowe said. “But when it was over, it’s a feeling I’ll never forget. It took a while for it to sink in.”
What didn’t take long to sink in for Crowe was the feeling that Georgia finally found a coach who could get his beloved Bulldogs back to college football’s promised land.
“I have nothing against (Mark) Richt or anything,” Crowe said. “I think he’s a great coach and a great man. But as soon as I saw Coach Smart step foot onto campus, I knew we had the guy that could do it. Regardless of what happens on Monday, we’ve got a bright future ahead. You’re trying to write a story for this game, but I have a feeling you’re going to be writing a lot more stories about those guys down the road.”
And that’s what you can believe in, Georgia fans. The future. The process. The plan. I know you want to win now, as in tomorrow, and honestly I believe Georgia can pull it off. But even if the teacher (Nick Saban) bests the pupil tomorrow, don’t look for it to be a trend.
In many ways, Georgia has positioned itself to become the new national (not to mention SEC) big dog of college football. Beyond just instilling a winning attitude, and the ability to play with an edge I haven’t seen in recent UGA teams, Smart has shored up recruiting to where the top talent in the state — which also typically is among the top talent in the nation — wants to stay home to play football because they believe they can do in Georgia what homegrown players once thought they had to leave the Peach State to do.
So as much as you’ll be wanting and expecting the win tonight, if it doesn’t come, please don’t buy into any curse rhetoric. Don’t start going all woe-is-me. Trust me, Georgia. Win or lose tonight, it won’t be another 38 years before we see these Dawgs playing for championships again.
Gabriel Stovall is the proud sports editor of The Covington News. He can be reached for tips and story ideas at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at @GabrielStovall1 and @CovNewsSports.