Losing on the final play in overtime in the national championship isn’t something anyone could get over easily. The fact that Georgia came so close, only to have Alabama hit a second-and-26 fly route down the left sideline for a game-winner, still stings. For some, whether it’s publicly admitted or not, they may never get over the loss.
The fact now is that Georgia must turn the page and look forward to a 2018 season that it hopes will be even more magical, capped with a win in the game it had its heart broken in. But make no mistake, no player is putting that game to bed. If anything, it still serves as a motivating factor for this upcoming team.
“We tell these young guys, we never want to come up one play short again,” receiver Terry Godwin said. “That’s the difference between a national championship, and being the runner-up. Nobody ever remembers the runner-up. You always remember the champion. We don’t want to be one play short.”
That final play from Alabama quarterback Tua Tagovailoa to receiver DeVonta Smith turned out to be the difference in bringing Georgia its first national championship since 1980 and finishing second place. But still, Georgia’s season put it back on the map nationally in only head coach Kirby Smart’s second season.
Entering year three, with spring practice now underway, the Bulldogs will begin the process of getting back to the College Football Playoff, and perhaps the national championship once again.
“You just use it as motivation and move on,” safety J.R. Reed said. “You have to work a little harder than you did last year, and you know what you have to do to get back to that spot.”
If the Bulldogs are going to get back to multiple postseason games like last season, they will have to do so without the likes of Nick Chubb, Sony Michel, Roquan Smith, Lorenzo Carter, Davin Bellamy, Javon Wims, Isaiah Wynn and John Atkins. That became a reality when the Bulldogs hit the practice field Tuesday, with those beloved team leaders off to pursue their NFL dreams.
For those who return, the feeling of walking off of Mercedes-Benz Stadium on the losing end of a national title game is something they don’t want to experience again. Rising senior defensive lineman Jonathan Ledbetter said that loss has motivated him since winter workouts began.
“I’m definitely working out harder than I ever have before because I know how it feels,” Ledbetter said. “Some of our younger guys may not know exactly how it feels. They may not have had a bigger role in that game. But the older guys are going to put what we feel into them and it’s going to show. They’re going to work just as hard.”
Now that he has a chance to watch his team practice, Smart wants to get a feel for what he will have on his 2018 team. While the players admitted to using the national title loss as motivation, Smart is hopeful they can remember the work it took to even be in a position to come up one play short in a national championship game.
And at the end of the day, this year’s team, with last year’s core leaders gone, will be different. So when Georgia pursues another championship run this fall – SEC and national – nothing that occurred through the 2017 season will factor into it.
“Bottom line, this team is distinctly different than that team,” Smart said. “So what will be the identity of this team is all I’m worried about. I’m worried about who are going to be the leaders? What are going to be the traits? Are we going to be better at getting turnovers? Are we going to be more explosive? How are we going to change offensively? Where are we going to evolve to? Those are things we need to see so we can find out where we’re going.”