When Georgia’s game against Kentucky on Saturday ends, Georgia’s seniors will never again hear the roar of 92,746 people clad in red and black. They’ll walk off the field at Sanford Stadium for the last time and leave their home locker room, never to return again as players.
It’s senior day when No. 7 Georgia hosts the Wildcats, meaning a large group of Bulldogs will play their final snaps at home. This week, as the seniors approached their final game in Athens, they have been charged with leading the team past a 23-point loss to Auburn — the first blemish in a previously unbeaten season.
“A lot of guys will be looking to them and how they respond,” head coach Kirby Smart said.
The majority of the seniors who will be recognized on Saturday came to Georgia in 2014 as part of the No. 8 recruiting class in the country. After their sophomore year, the head coach who recruited them, Mark Richt, was fired. They endured a coaching change and an 8-5 season as juniors.
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Then last December, all juniors but wide receiver and returner Isaiah McKenzie announced that they would return for their senior year. Some of them could have left for the NFL and the money that comes with it. Instead, they came back. They wanted to compete for a championship.
Now, they’re central pieces of a team vying for a spot in the College Football Playoff.
“They've laid the groundwork for what we're trying to do here,” sophomore tight end Isaac Nauta said. “They've been through it all. They know what it takes to win, and they know how to handle loses too.”
Following the Bulldogs’ loss to Auburn, Georgia’s senior class was “vocal,” Nauta said. They told the freshmen who had yet to lose a college game that they needed to understand the Bulldogs’ goals were still obtainable, that one loss didn’t erase their season.
This year, the guidance that comes from Georgia’s seniors has been invaluable because Smart prefers to let the players lead the team.
“The senior leadership is probably huge for this team because we have a lot of young guys,” Carter said. “I think the older guys make sure we stay level headed. Some of the freshman are spoiled. They haven't had a chance to go through a rough patch. We've been through it.”
Within Georgia’s senior class are the team’s two leading rushers (Nick Chubb and Sony Michel), its leader in sacks and tackles for a loss (Carter), a punter up for the Ray Guy Award (Cam Nizialek), Georgia’s all-time leader in interception return yards (Dominick Sanders), and 13 total starters.
With a win against Kentucky on Saturday, the seniors will secure their third season with 10 wins. But this class, which helped take Georgia to its first appearance in the SEC Championship game since 2012, has a legacy that isn't set yet.
"These guys have meant a lot to this program," Smart said. "(They have) meant a lot to me personally, meant a lot to the staff, but they've also meant a lot to this university. I think we all owe it to them as a fan base, as a coaching staff, as a team to make sure we give them our best effort.”