It only takes a few steps into the Georgia locker room to see the all-too-familiar feeling of sadness after the Bulldogs’ second loss to Alabama in a calendar year.
Andrew Thomas sat with a beige towel over his head. The sophomore offensive tackle wasn’t recognizable except for a placard above his locker that was soon removed for a keepsake.
Isaiah Wilson, after briefly interviewing with The Telegraph, placed his hands around his jersey collar to remove the red-and-black uniform top and a set of bulky pads. He started, then stopped as the “Power G” logo reached his lower lip.
Wilson’s head went back down and a moment of deep thought ensued.
“We were one play away then. We were one play away now,” defensive tackle Michael Barnett said. “We left it all out on the line.”
Added freshman Cade Mays on Twitter after the game’s conclusion: “That’s real pain.”
The feeling for Georgia was undoubtedly agonizing when it walked off of the playing field at Mercedes-Benz Stadium, because the narrative was nearly the same.
Alabama has beaten Georgia in two consecutive years in games that the Bulldogs seemingly had significant controlled. The Bulldogs held a second-half lead in each contest, only to relinquish it later.
Yes Bulldogs can compete with the nation’s elite, but its ability to finish the game remains to be seen.
“We thought we had the thing sealed away,” freshman outside linebacker Brenton Cox said. “That’s the mindset we have going in to any game; that we need to finish it.”
Georgia players can’t recall a certain play where it felt like a lead was substantial enough to ensure a victory. From an outsider’s eye, the action on the Bulldogs’ sideline was most flamboyant when Riley Ridley hauled in a 23-yard pass on a back-shoulder throw from Jake Fromm.
There were bold fist pumps and many roars as the touchdown signal was given. Little did the Bulldogs know, things would unravel as they have before against Alabama.
There was another backup-quarterback-turned-hero — Jalen Hurts for Tua Tagovailoa. It came down to the last play. Georgia made small mistakes that led to its downfall.
Elation turned to sorrow. A possible win that the Bulldogs longed for turned into a devastating defeat that they hoped to never experience again.
“I think, you know, looking back at the national championship, we left a lot of plays out on the table,” Georgia place-kicker Rodrigo Blankenship said. “I guess you could say the feeling is pretty similar.”
Blankenship missed a 30-yard field goal that would’ve given the Bulldogs a 31-14 lead.
At the same time, there was a miniscule increase of optimism in the Bulldogs’ locker room on Saturday night than there was on the evening of Jan. 8. The players were more willing to converse, it wasn’t quiet enough to hear a pin drop and there was a sense of realization.
There’s more for the Bulldogs to play for.
Their biggest hope is for the College Football Playoff committee to hold Georgia’s spot in the top four. As a two-loss team, Georgia would be the first program to make the semifinals with more than one defeat. It seems unlikely as the Bulldogs’ 36-16 regular-season loss at LSU could serve as its detriment.
Oklahoma, a one-loss Big 12 champion, beat Texas 39-27 in the conference championship to avenge its only loss to the Longhorns. Ohio State, a one-loss Big Ten champion, is vying for a conference title against Northwestern.
While Georgia has contenders with one less loss for the final spot, there has been lobbying for the Bulldogs. From national media, to the postgame press conferences of Kirby Smart and Nick Saban, some think Georgia deserves the spot.
“I promise you, you don’t want to play us,” Smart said. “It’s not our decision. It’s their decision. But you’re going to put the four best football teams in.”
Added ESPN’s Kirk Herbstreit on ABC’s telecast of the ACC Championship: “I think Georgia sits pretty, and that’ll upset people. I don’t think they’re out. I think Notre Dame moves down (to No. 4), Georgia goes to (No. 3) and that leaves Oklahoma and Ohio State out.”
Ask Deandre Baker, who lauded the performance of his defensive backs’ unit, about how he thinks his senior season should finish.
“We know we’re one of the top four teams in the country,” he said. “There’s no doubt about it.”
If Georgia is held out of the semifinal, it would likely be slotted in the Allstate Sugar Bowl on Jan. 1.
Even if Sunday’s verdict doesn’t bode the Bulldogs’ way, their hope lies in the program’s future. Sixty-three of Georgia’s 85 scholarship players are underclassman, and there’s also one of the nation’s top-ranked 2019 recruiting classes headed to Athens.
That could be what gave Thomas a sense of relief. It allowed him to remove the towel, sit up and take a breath. Georgia thinks it’ll be around a while.
“They see that we’re a force to be reckoned with,” freshman Adam Anderson said. “We’re not done. We still have a chance to get better-and-better.”