In his attempt to summarize and disseminate his secret to long-term success, Nick Saban the other day sounded less like a football coach than the CEO of a Fortune 500 company, which he kind of is.
“Success is not a continuum, it's momentary,” the Alabama coach said. “It's human nature to get satisfied and get a little complacent when you have success. But in a competitive business like we're in, where there's always a next challenge, if you have that mindset, you're not going to have a lot of success long-term.”
It’s the process-oriented thinking that so many coaches in sports attempt to emulate. But left unsaid is that sometimes teams lose anyway, even when it seemingly is doing everything right. Alabama exemplified this last season. It had a championship pedigree and led Clemson 24-14 in the fourth quarter of the national title game, but was outscored 21-7 in the final 14 minutes and lost.
Georgia just lost a huge football game, ending an otherwise magical season. Kirby Smart, the head coach with the high bar and elements of Saban’s coaching DNA running through his veins, had his team close to a national title in only his second season. But the Bulldogs blew leads of 13-0 and 20-7. They fizzled on offense, busted a coverage or two, may have been victimized by a few bad officiating decisions and lost 26-23 in overtime.
Another parade canceled.
Smart has Georgia pointed in the right direction. But these opportunities are rare. Winning is fragile.
The Dogs can find no better example of that than the Falcons. Their talent and suddenly model front office led many to project they would roll through the regular season, even after last year’s Super Bowl loss. But there was a drop-off in player performance, and probably coaching. The team lost three consecutive games early in the season and nearly buried itself, only to secure a playoff berth on the final day of the season.
So much for what’s on paper. So much for expectations. Success is not a continuum.
There were rare elements in Georgia’s season: Few significant injuries. Great leadership, punctuated by the decision of four NFL prospects (Nick Chubb, Sony Michel, Lorenzo Carter, Davin Bellamy) to return for their senior seasons. Even the chance to play Auburn again in the SEC title game and knowing what went wrong in their regular season game could be taken as fortuitous.
It doesn’t mean Georgia can’t get back to this point. But this is sports. This is the SEC. Weird things, man. Auburn won games over Alabama and Georgia and wound up in the Peach Bowl. And lost. To Central Florida.
Georgia is feeling some pain this morning, but how far can pain carry the team?
“The locker room is definitely going to change next season,” quarterback Jake Fromm said after the loss. “The seniors have done a great job. I’ll take on more of leadership role. I’m definitely going to push everybody. Nobody in this locker room ever wants to feel the way they do right now ever again.”
Michel accurately stated the new mindset at Georgia.
“The standard is the national championship,” he said. “That should be everybody’s goal when they play for Georgia.”
Maybe that was the mindset before. But players and coaches didn’t universally wear that on their sleeve before Smart’s arrival.
The Bulldogs came close. But like the roof at Mercedes-Benz Stadium during pregame rain, they leaked.
Many will point to officiating or offensive play-calling after the two-touchdown leads. It’s never that simple.
There were mistakes. Fromm threw an interception in the third quarter that led to a field goal and he took a sack in overtime (though Rodrigo Blankenship partially bailed him out with a 51-yard field goal). Multiple defenders missed tackles on a Michael Vick-esque 9-yard scramble by Alabama freshman quarterback Tua Tagovailoa. That kept a scoring drive alive and ignited the second-half comeback. The defense let Calvin Ridley pop free on a fourth-and-4 pass in the end zone to tie the score. A busted coverage by Malkolm Parrish and/or Dominick Sanders led to the winning touchdown catch in overtime by DeVonta Smith (who had seven receptions in the previous 13 games).
Yes, there were some missed calls, or non-calls, by officials that hurt Georgia. Tyler Simmons blocked an Alabama punt early in the third quarter when the score was 13-0. But the block was nullified by an offside penalty that appeared bogus.
Officials also missed a face-mask penalty on Alabama’s Isaiah Buggs during a D’Andre Swift run. An extra shove to the head by Mack Wilson after he tackled Jake Fromm could have drawn a personal foul. Finally, on the game-tying fourth-down touchdown to Ridley, another Alabama wide receiver appeared to jump early.
There are already national-championship odds out for next season. Georgia is third-highest favorite to win it all at 15-2, behind only Alabama (11-4) and Clemson (6-1).
Smart, sitting next to Chubb and Michel on the dais after the game, said, “All these guys have been incredible leaders. And if we have that kind of leadership, there's no doubt. The sky's the limit.”
Returning receiver Mecole Hardeman said, “ We have something special going on.”
Teammate Riley Ridley said, “Just this season will change Georgia forever.”
That’s the hope on campus and among the team’s fans. But opportunities like Monday don’t happen often.