ATLANTA—Thirty-seven years is long enough.
That is the message I got from Georgia fans, former players and coaches before Monday night’s CFP national championship game between the No. 3 Bulldogs and No. 4 Alabama.
Despite raw weather and long lines to get into Mercedes-Benz Stadium, the Bulldog Nation packed the place hoping, praying that Georgia’s long national championship drought would finally come to an end.
Among them was Frank Ros, the captain of the 1980 team at Georgia, the last to win a national championship.
“Our team in 1980 was one that would not be denied. Every time we had our backs to the wall we always pulled together and won,” said Ros, now a retired executive from the Coca-Cola Company. “But it’s time for us to win. I’m hoping this is our time again.”
It was not. And it was not the time in the most painful way imaginable.
Leading 13-0 at halftime and 20-7 in the middle of the third quarter, Georgia appeared to have control of this game.
But at halftime, with only 94 yards of total offense, Saban benched his starting quarterback, Jalen Hurts, who had led the Crimson Tide to within a second of the national championship a year ago. Instead he went with a talented freshman, Tua Tagovailoa, and it proved to be a masterful stroke. Tagovailoa led the Crimson Tide as they stormed back to tie the game 20-20 in regulation.
What transpired in overtime will be forever remembered in Alabama football history as one of its greatest moments. And it will be remembered in Georgia football history as one of the most painful losses ever.
Georgia went on offense first and got a 51-yard field goal by Rodrigo Blankenship to give Georgia a 23-20 lead. Then the Bulldogs appeared to be in good shape when they sacked Tagovailoa for a 16-yard loss on Alabama’s first play.
Georgia, some coaches had told me before the game, was vulnerable to the deep ball. And once again, Saban rolled the dice with everything on the line. The play call was “Seattle” and it called for four receivers to go deep. Tagovailoa found DeVonta Smith in the end zone and threw a perfect strike for the touchdown. Suddenly, it was over and Alabama had won 26-23.
Georgia’s players were stunned as they walked off the field.
And here is what made it even more painful. Alabama apparently had the game won in regulation when the Crimson Tide drove to the 17-yard line with only three seconds left.
But Andy Pappanastros hooked a 34-yard field goal wide left and Georgia had new life.
“After they missed the field goal here was no doubt in our mind that we were going to win the game,” said running back Sony Michel.
But Alabama made the play with the game and the national championship on the line. This one is going to hurt for a long, long time.
“This was a tremendous opportunity for the University of Georgia,” said second-year coach Kirby Smart, who was Saban’s assistant for 10 seasons before coming to Athens. “Give them credit. They made the plays. Our guys played with all their hearts.”
Georgia’s long-suffering fans, who have seen to Bulldogs come close but fall short while other SEC foes like Auburn, Tennessee, Alabama, LSU, and Florida were winning national championships, hoped that Monday night was finally going to be their night.
Despite the bitterness of Monday night, the 2017 college football season was the ultimate bucket list for Georgia fans.
It all began after the 2016 season, Smart’s first at Georgia, when key seniors like running backs Nick Chubb and Michel, announced they would return in 2017. Other seniors, including linebackers Lorenzo Carter and Davin Bellamy joined them, thinking Georgia had the makings of a special team.
The magical ride began in earnest on Sept. 9 in South Bend, Indiana, where over 40,000 Georgia fans invaded Notre Dame Stadium and watch their Bulldogs post a historic 20-19 victory.
It was then that Georgia fans dared to think that they might have something special on their hands.
The ride continued for seven more games and it appeared to be sidetracked when the Bulldogs went to Auburn and lost 40-17. But Georgia never wavered and when it got the chance it avenged that loss, 28-7, in the SEC championship game.
Then there was the dramatic 54-48 double overtime win over Oklahoma in the Rose Bowl, a game where the Bulldogs trailed 31-14 in the second quarter.
Like Georgia was going to be a team that Fate would smile upon. As was the case in 1980, these Bulldogs looked like a team of Destiny.
It was not. But Smart said that this game, as painful as it was, is simply the start of something big.
“These seniors have set the standard and everybody needs to know that Georgia is not going away,” he said. “We’re going to be around for a long time.”
So the future looks bright for Georgia. But the present is painful. Very painful.