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ATLANTA — Georgia spent three months high atop the college football landscape. Alabama shattered that aura of invincibility in just three hours.
For the Bulldogs, what happens now?
Up until Saturday night, Georgia and its fans had every reason to believe this was a season of destiny, not unlike LSU in 2019. All the ghosts of the past, all the failures and miscues, second-and-26 … it was all about to be ancient history. Years of planning, seasons of top-ranked recruiting, months of sharpening into a precise, lethal unit … it was all about to pay off.
But then Alabama did what Alabama does. Once again, Alabama — hobbled, barely-beat-Auburn, good-not-great Alabama — stepped up and punched Georgia right in the mouth. Once again, Georgia held a double-digit lead but ended up watching Alabama’s taillights fade into the distance.
“We can't turn the ball over and give up 60- and 70-yard passes and expect to be successful,” Georgia head coach Kirby Smart said after the game. “For the most part this year, we've executed well. We didn't execute well [Saturday], and that had a lot to do with [Alabama]. So give Alabama credit, and we've got a lot to work on.”
Smart pushed back on the idea that the loss shattered Georgia's psyche. "It didn't do any damage. What it did is reinvigorated our energy," he said. "It recenters you, right? [Alabama's] greatest thing is when they lost their game against Texas A&M, they garnered some focus and some attention. To me, that's an opportunity for a wakeup call, if anything."
Alabama hung 41 points on a Georgia defense that had allowed an average of less than a touchdown all season. The Tide scored more points in four quarters than Georgia’s opponents had scored in the previous five games combined. Georgia’s defense had allowed an average of 231 yards to their prior 12 opponents; Alabama more than doubled that by running up 536. Combined, that’s enough to bring all the old doubts, all the old fears, all the old can't-get-it-done-in-the-clutch criticisms of Georgia, roaring right back to life.
“The outside noise begins now,” Smart conceded after the game. “We've heard it before. But these guys are so solid. We've got such great leaders in [the locker room]. I didn't have to say a lot in there because the leaders spoke up and talked about what they wanted and how they wanted the next couple weeks to go.”
The next couple weeks will be busy ones indeed in Athens. The College Football Playoff semifinal games kick off in 27 days. In that time, Smart has to figure out how to:
Speed up a secondary that allowed Alabama to gash big plays almost at will
Beef up an offensive line that allowed three sacks and four hurries
Fire up a quarterback who lost control of the game for the first time all year
Patch up the wounded ego of a dominant team that found itself dominated
That’s a whole lot of unexpected additions to the to-do list. The real problem for Georgia is what worked so well all year long didn’t work at all Saturday night.
“We prepared like every other week,” linebacker Nakobe Dean said. “We took it in stride, tried to trust the coaches, trust the plan and everything. They got great players, and they made great plays. We just didn't play our best game today.”
If you’re going to have that bad game, it’s better to happen when it can’t hurt you. In realistic terms, Georgia lost nothing but pride Saturday night. The Bulldogs are all but certain to make the College Football Playoff foursome, which keeps them in line for the season’s real goal.
But Alabama is still out there lurking, and if and when the two teams meet again this season, Georgia won’t be anywhere near as confident as it was this time around.
It’s all still right there for Georgia, all the justifiable pride and validation that the program’s first national championship in 40 years would bring. But Georgia’s first attempt to master the mountain that is Alabama has ended with the Dawgs sliding all the way back down the hill. And somehow, the mountain’s even higher now.
Alabama lit a fire under Georgia on Saturday night. The only question that matters now is, will that fire fuel the Bulldogs ... or burn the whole season down?
Jay Busbee is a writer for Yahoo Sports. Follow him on Twitter at @jaybusbee or contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.