ATLANTA -- In a matter of 771 days, the plan for Georgia to take that final and most difficult step toward the national stage nearly came to full fruition.
Just two years, one month and 10 days after Georgia parted ways with a head coach that averaged nearly 10 wins per year over 15 seasons, the Bulldogs arrived at Atlanta's Mercedes-Benz Stadium with the opportunity for their first national championship since 1980.The Mark Richt era was good, but school administration gambled that more was possible. Even after Monday night's 26-23 overtime loss to iconic Alabama, more is now a reality and Southeastern Conference programs may need to get used to the idea that instead of this being a one-off deal, Kirby Smart's destiny is just starting now.
"I think everybody can see Georgia is a force to be reckoned with," Smart said following the loss. "We're not going anywhere."
Georgia signal caller Jake Fromm, who was given the job permanently following an early-season injury to Jacob Eason, was an overtime away from becoming the second true freshman quarterback to ever lead his team to a national championship.
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Fromm, who got the nod from Georgia offensive coordinator Jim Chaney on Monday night to throw it often against a loaded Alabama front waiting to hit Bulldogs running backs Sonny Michel and Nick Chubb, finished 16-of-32 passing for 232 yards, including a dazzling 80-yard touchdown pass to Mecole Hardman.
"Obviously winning obviously helps with recruiting," Fromm said. "And it's good for the University of Georgia. Good for the state of Georgia. Any time we can get Georgia kids to stay home and get some help from other states, that's great. And I hope the University of Georgia, the football program stays great for a long time."
While forced to compete in arguably the nation's most difficult conference, Georgia sits in the much more manageable Eastern Division where rivals Florida and Tennessee are going through coaching changes following four-win seasons.
Coach Smart: “This is a special, special group. These seniors... you gave so much to this program, every one of you seniors. You did it the right way. These seniors set a standard around here that you young players better understand, because now the standard is here.”#GoDawgs pic.twitter.com/Sp7WqJWRsu— Georgia Football (@FootballUGA) January 9, 2018
Missouri lost its offensive coordinator, Kentucky has never been in the conference's title game, and South Carolina is only school from the East that won its bowl game. Georgia's league schedule dictates that Smart is here to stay in America's consciousness.
"I do know this -- the standard has been set by the seniors here," Smart said. "If we have that kind of leadership, the sky is the limit. I just hope the younger class doesn't take it for granted that it just happens."
Smart was a 41-yard miracle touchdown pass from becoming the first former Saban assistant to defeat the Crimson Tide coach, and the man born in Montgomery led a national championship game nearly the entire second half in just his second year of a program remake.
With Smart's mentor, of which Alabama has erected a statue in his honoring outside Bryant-Denny Stadium in Tuscaloosa, on the opposite sideline, Georgia (13-2) was the more disciplined football team Monday night but the Crimson Tide (13-1) scored 19 of the final 22 points in a thrilling finale to the 2017 season.
"Coach Smart let the players lead this team," Georgia tailback Sony Michel said. "We're trying to the standard high so the younger guys understand. We fell short tonight, but I think the younger guys now know that it'll take this and more."
Following consistent bridesmaid nine- to 10-win season under Richt, Smart knew Monday night was time to cash in on the gamble of his bosses.
Year Two of the Smart era may have ended with shock and a crushing overtime loss to the sport's most dominant program, but it was completed with a signal to the rest of the college football world that from now on Georgia is ready to take back its place at the elite poker table of blueblood programs.
"With hard work, good recruiting, good coaches, I mean you give yourself a chance at success when you eliminate roadblocks, and that's one of the things we try to do at Georgia is let's eliminate all roadblocks," Smart said. "Is it everything you can get in your favor might be that one point? It might be that one play in overtime, might be that one blocked field goal. Get it all in your favor because that's the only thing you can control."
This article is written by Matt Stevens from The Montgomery Advertiser and was legally licensed via the Tribune Content Agency through the NewsCred publisher network. Please direct all licensing questions to firstname.lastname@example.org.