'We're not going anywhere' - Why Georgia looks like Alabama's long-term foil

ATLANTA – Sometimes, revolutions start slow, build gradually and eventually breakthrough into the highest stratospheres. There are cameos on the national stage, an eventual element of familiarity from flirting with big moments before finally transcending to elite.

This Georgia football revolution adopted no such subtleties. The 2017 Georgia football team ignored any notion of a required purgatory period before etching themselves into the national consciousness. Coming off an 8-5 season and Liberty Bowl appearance, Georgia’s 2017 accomplishments read like a Bulldog fan’s preseason bucket list – SEC champions, No. 1 recruiting class and playing for the national title for the first time since 1982. Georgia pushed around Alabama for a half, played even for four quarters and so unnerved Nick Saban’s monotonous dynasty that he switched quarterbacks at halftime and needed a 41-yard heave in overtime to overcome the Bulldogs.

It was, unquestionably, a night of searing pain for Georgia fans. They squandered a 13-point lead in the game’s final 22 minutes, failing to strike a fatal blow with Saban’s juggernaut looking unusually vulnerable. (How many times have you seen Alabama players fighting on the sideline like in the third quarter on Monday night?)

As the hangovers faded away on Tuesday and the puffy eyes receded, there’s a grander takeaway from this Georgia season than losing on a walk-off overtime touchdown on second-and-26. With 42-year-old coach Kirby Smart, a dynamic freshman quarterback and a relentless recruiting mechanism in place, this Georgia season felt more like an appetizer than a nightcap, more of the start of an enduring run rather than a Gene Chizik-like aberration. “I’m very proud of this team and this university,” Smart said early Tuesday morning, “and we’re not going anywhere.”

Georgia’s Nick Chubb, from left, Sony Michel and Kirby Smart walk off the field as Georgia loses to Alabama in the NCAA college football playoff championship game in Atlanta on Monday, Jan. 8, 2018. Alabama won, 26-23. (Curtis Compton/Atlanta Journal-Constitution via AP)
Georgia’s Nick Chubb, from left, Sony Michel and Kirby Smart walk off the field as Georgia loses to Alabama in the NCAA college football playoff championship game in Atlanta on Monday, Jan. 8, 2018. Alabama won, 26-23. (Curtis Compton/Atlanta Journal-Constitution via AP)

While it’s too early to declare this a tipping point, it’s safe to say that Smart has the program, plan and personnel to grow into the most menacing long-term foil to Saban during his remarkable 11-year run at Alabama. “I’ve always wondered why Georgia isn’t up there,” former Florida State coach Bobby Bowden told Yahoo Sports on Monday, having keen appreciation of Georgia’s shortcomings for decades. “Some of the best football players in the country are in the state. If you can get the majority of them, you can play with anyone in the country.”

There are infinite gigabytes stored in Apple Clouds throughout the galaxy dedicated to Alabama football vulnerabilities, potential foils and the end of its dynasty. Alabama has won five of the past nine national titles, and considering all of the freshmen who balled out for the Crimson Tide on Monday night, there’s no signs of slowing down.

Those who’ve been around Georgia and Smart, though, have expressed an unusual confidence in his ability to compete with Saban in the SEC and beyond. Almost doesn’t count in college football, but the past five months have showed that Georgia football has reached a paradigm it only teased fans with under former coach Mark Richt. “I think it’s just the start of it,” former Georgia offensive lineman Brandon Kublanow, now with the Ravens, told Yahoo Sports recently. “I just don’t see it going any other way from here. I know how it works and how he’s running the program. It’s hard to see it going in a backwards direction. He’ll continue to gain momentum through the years.”

Since Urban Meyer left Florida in December 2009, there’s been no SEC coach or program that could be considered a peer of Alabama. (And by then, the Tide had pulled ahead of the Gators.) There have been other contenders that have appeared and disappeared, as SEC teams have popped up like whack-a-moles. Ole Miss rose and fell, as its magical recruiting classes dissolved unsurprisingly under NCAA scrutiny. It hasn’t been Florida, as two brutal coaching hires post-Meyer by former athletic director Jeremy Foley and facility ambivalence have left the Gators scrambling to catch up.

It hasn’t been Texas A&M, as the Aggies have proved the football financial version of the old Texas saying – all hat and no cowboy – since joining the league. LSU could never muster consistency on the offensive side of the ball to remain a consistent pest, and there’s been little sign early in Ed Orgeron’s tenure that’s changing. Auburn has beaten Alabama three of the past eight years, including in the finale of the regular season this year. The Tigers gave a $7 million-a-year contract to Gus Malzahn for the next seven years, showing the institutional faith in his ability to topple Saban. But there’s something about Smart’s precociousness and Georgia’s untapped potential as a program that projects higher than all those coaches and schools.

Other than one dynamic season, the optimism around Smart’s burgeoning run here at Georgia can be directly tied to recruiting. Smart’s ability to capitalize on the Bulldogs’ natural resources has raised eyebrows around the country when they finished the first signing period this year at No. 1. Nothing epitomizes this more than the early enrollment of quarterback Justin Fields, who is widely considered the No. 1 quarterback recruit in the country. Georgia managed to sign him despite the development of true freshman quarterback Jake Fromm, who showed the moxie, arm talent and savvy of a future All-SEC quarterback this season.

One SEC assistant coach said he expects Fields to eventually beat out Fromm, saying Fields is the second-most talented quarterback he’s ever evaluated on film. “Other than Marcus Mariota,” the assistant said, “I’ve never seen a better highlight tape for a recruit.”

Alabama has played for the past three national titles. The Crimson Tide won two and lost the other in the game’s final seconds. The only way for Georgia to lodge itself as a permanent nemesis is to continue to recruit at the highest level. “If they have the No. 1 recruiting class and ‘Bama doesn’t, that’ll be something different,” former Florida and South Carolina coach Steve Spurrier told Yahoo Sports on Monday. “Can they do that two, three, four years in a row? Then they’ll be up there with ‘Bama.”

There’s a ways to go. But a historic season that ended on the precipice of generational glee can be viewed as a success once the immediacy of the initial pain clears. For decades, Georgia fans have had an unfulfilled yearning to compete at the highest levels of college football. After all those years of longing, Monday felt like an affirmation of Georgia belonging.

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