Paths to national championship game were different for Bulldogs, Crimson Tide but final destination is now the same
PASADENA, Calif. — The seeds of every season, every touchdown, every inch taken and given on the football field are laid in the offseason that comes before. It is the case no matter the level of football and the case if a team goes undefeated or winless.
In the case of No. 3 Georgia’s fairy tale 2017 campaign, the Bulldogs’ season began not on the practice field in Athens or but in a team meeting room with a motivational speaker. Head coach Kirby Smart was using an old trick he picked up from Nick Saban when they were at Alabama together and brought in Dr. Kevin Elko.
His message to the team was a simple one but one that has been a source for the players in good times and bad this year – keep chopping wood.
Down 17 points in the Rose Bowl to the Heisman Trophy winner and looking like you’re going to get run out of the Arroyo Seco, Georgia players and coaches didn’t panic or fret. They simply repeated the mantra they’ve leaned on for months to turnaround their College Football Playoff Semifinal and in the process cap off a historic 54-48 double-overtime win over No. 2 Oklahoma and book the sweetest southern homecoming the sport has seen up to this point.
“As players, we looked at each other man to man and just said we didn’t want this to be our last 30 minutes together,” said linebacker Lorenzo Carter, who recorded a key field goal block in the second overtime. “Our whole thing is keep chopping wood, keep wearing them down and never give up.”
“Keep chopping wood and eventually that tree will fall. That’s what we’ve stuck with from the offseason.”
Safety Dominik Sanders added, “We had a lot of wood to chop and we kept chopping it all.”
The epic matchup down the highway from the Hollywood sign had just about everything you could want unless you were a Bulldogs defensive assistant. It was the first-ever overtime Rose Bowl game in 104 editions and the highest-scoring game in the Granddaddy of Them All — edging out last year’s back-and-forth USC-Penn State clash by a single point. There were twists, turns, trick plays, turnovers and a whole lot of fight from both sides.
No stretch was more critical to the outcome than when the Sooners’ lead was their biggest however. After allowing Baker Mayfield to catch a touchdown off a trick play with just six seconds left, it was pretty clear that everything was rolling Oklahoma’s way heading into the break. An ill-advised squib kick gave the team great field position however and Georgia kicker Rodrigo Blankenship promptly booted the longest field goal the hallowed grounds have seen from 55 yards out to cut it to a two-score game.
That was just enough of a kick start to light the Bulldogs on their way in an third quarter that saw the defense stymie Mayfield and the two-headed backfield monster of Nick Chubb and Sony Michel really start to get rolling.
“We had to make those adjustments and we did,” said linebacker Roquan Smith, the defensive MVP of the game. “We played a little better in the second half but not to our standard. We expected that from a great Oklahoma team.”
While Georgia did allow Oklahoma to mount a comeback of its own to set up a finish for the ages, it was fitting that Smart’s team took back control of the game in that third quarter. That’s when No. 4 Alabama did the same down in the Sugar Bowl to not only avenge last year’s loss in the national title game to No. 1 Clemson… but to stomp on the Tigers’ necks and make them say uncle in the process.
It was a somewhat predictable outcome in the grand scheme of things although the inability for the Clemson offense to do hardly anything was surprising. It goes without saying that Nick Saban remains the most dangerous coach to face in a big game with time off to prepare but the Crimson Tide getting healthy may have made the bigger difference.
Alabama’s front seven was swarming and looked like they were a step quicker on every snap. The secondary was air tight locking up a veteran group of receivers and that might have been the most creativity we’ve seen from offensive coordinator Brian Daboll since he arrived in Tuscaloosa.
While both sides took circuitous routes to Atlanta, the second All-SEC title game in less than a decade is sure to inspire plenty of people trying to use that to sell larger takeaways about the league’s strength. It will probably lead even more folks to avoid the game like a plague but this should be far from a redux of LSU-Alabama from six years ago given how this season has played out and the kind of fight both showed to reach Mercedes-Benz Stadium next Monday.
Such a matchup is clearly not a problem for SEC Commissioner Greg Sankey, who made the trek to Pasadena to witness history and was smiling ear-to-ear amid the red and white confetti to ring in the New Year in the best way possible.
“Nobody’s had this problem,” Sankey joked, trying to get a score update for the Sugar Bowl. “These national championship opportunities set expectations high for everyone.”
Sankey’s message was on point, but failed to underscore the one being preached steps away in the Georgia locker room at the Rose Bowl.
“We’ve got to finish,” Rose Bowl MVP Sony Michel remarked. “Our mindset is to finish.”
They’ll try to finish chopping next week in Atlanta, hoping to complete the task of bringing back another national title to Athens for the first time since 1980 and do so just down the road in their own state. It won’t be an easy feat given who is on the other side but that hasn’t stopped the Dawgs and it certainly won’t stop the Tide on the other side of what could be another thrilling national title game.
Stat of the Week
Nick Saban’s former assistant coaches are 0-11 against him as head coaches.
Tweet of the Week
Superlatives of the Week
Best player: Sony Michel, Georgia
Team of the week: UCF
Honorary Les Miles goat of the week: Jim Harbaugh
Quote of the week: “Everybody’s talking about the trilogy like someone’s fixing to die or something. We’ll be back, they’ll be back. We’ll have more of these.” — Dabo Swinney.
Play of the Week
Alabama DT Da’Ron Payne with the sweet toe tapping TD catch! pic.twitter.com/qVzXkH6ql8— 2018 NFL Draft (@DraftRT) January 2, 2018
I’m a voter in the FWAA/National Football Foundation Super 16 Poll and have released my ballot here every week. Here’s my ballot heading into the final game of the year:
6. Ohio State
8. Penn State
12. Notre Dame
14. Michigan State
15. Oklahoma State
Best of the rest: LSU, Washington, NC State, Washington State, Northwestern, Virginia Tech, Louisville, FAU, Troy
No. 4 Alabama vs. No. 3 Georgia (CFP National Championship Game)
Fast, physical football. That will be the buzzword in Atlanta when the two rivals meet for all the marbles. This one shapes up to be an extremely close affair full of two offenses trying to establish the run and a pair of outstanding front sevens trying to slow them down. The storyline would dictate the Bulldogs emerging with the gold trophy in the end after a competitive affair but Nick Saban’s team looked like the best in the land for all but one weekend and something says they’ll find a way down the stretch to bring another title back to Tuscaloosa behind young quarterback Jalen Hurts.
— Written by Bryan Fischer, an award-winning college football columnist and member of the Athlon Contributor Network. You can follow him from coast-to-coast on Twitter, Instagram and Snapchat at @BryanDFischer.
(Photos courtesy of Getty Images)