Almost a decade ago, after another all-too-familiar result on the banks of the St. John’s river where we lost to our most hated rival in excruciatingly painful fashion - overtime, I wondered to myself if this program that we are all gloriously obsessed with would ever ascend to the place that we seem to be headed in the present. In that moment, in my heart of hearts, I truly felt that we were destined to be a good - but not great - football program. The game we had just choked away to Florida, where there were as many ebbs and flows as the old St. John’s itself, had pretty much convinced me of a possible harsh reality: We were essentially an above average team with an occasional good-to-maybe-great season mixed in with an outlier bad season. Still, the optimist in me felt that with some administrative support (read: $), and perhaps some better assistant coaches on Mark Richt’s staff we could somehow become consistently great. Maybe even...elite.
Anyway, as my father and I waited on the bus to return to St. Simon’s Island, the overflow crowd streamed out of the stadium, which is a real study in the human experience. In an overtime loss where no one leaves their seat until a victor is crowned, there is only joy and anguish exiting at the same time; quite the dichotomy. Back at the bus, our depression was temporarily alleviated by an over-served frat boy who was convinced our charter bus was his charter bus and we were all intruders and insisted everyone already on-board leave. In time, someone found the wayward student and guided him to a cozy place to crash, much to our relief. This was but a brief respite from our collective anguish. In a way, I wanted to be him because in that moment he was not feeling any pain; mental or otherwise. I was. We all were. Even the bus driver. Funny what one can remember in a moment of absolute lucid misery.
Since that day in 2010, Georgia’s fortunes have improved, going 5-3 vs. our most hated rival with a damned good chance to make it 3-in-a-row in just a few short months from now. Anything less would be a massive disappointment.
No one could predict back in 2010 that Florida was on the cusp of a wildly inconsistent stretch that has seen 3 coaching changes since Urban Meyer, including a pair of 4-win seasons (4-8 in 2013 and 4-7 in 2017) and no SEC titles. In contrast, the Dawgs two worst seasons over the same stretch were a pair of 8-5 campaigns (‘13 and ‘16). Such is the cyclical nature of football.
As optimistic as everyone was after the 2012 “near miss” season, bad luck and NCAA sanctions and ineptitude conspired against an absolutely loaded 2013. The 2014 team was one of those squads that should have fared better than it ultimately did, especially during the epic failure in Jacksonville that season. The memory of 2012 and how close we came was still fresh and almost certainly we’d get that chance to do it again. Much of what happened in 2013 and ‘14 was an amalgamation of injuries, a few instances of horrific officiating, Tennessee field conditions and general bad luck. We’d get through and right the ship.
Then came October 3, 2015. Despite the fact that we stood at 4-0 on that particular Saturday, having recently trounced South Carolina and effectively ending Steve Spurrier’s career as a college coach, I was cautiously optimistic.
That all ended about an hour before kickoff.
I vividly remember I was standing behind the hedges, south side of Sanford Stadium, watching Alabama warm up. It was then when I and the most disturbing realization of how far behind our program truly was. We had not yet taken a snap, but I knew that we were going to die that day on our own home field. The results on the field confirmed all of our fears and in that moment I honestly felt that we were at a place from which we might not ever recover, or at least in for a long and tedious rebuild if -and only if- the right concoction of coaching personnel and administrative support merged. Alabama, almost to a man, were simply bigger and more athletic than us, especially on the lines where it matters the most. In order to ever compete against that, we’d need a miracle. Alabama had been signing top 1 or 2 classes every year since Nick Saban’s arrival in Tuscaloosa, and 2015 was just a single manifestation of years and years of elite recruiting and development. We were just beginning to feel the effects of the disastrous 2013 recruiting class. All that came home to roost right then and there. It was like a thunderbolt.
Anyway, I just shook my head and climbed up to my seat under the club-level overhang, out of the rain, which was of some solace. Having viewed what Alabama had become, up-close and in living color, was stunning and would surely take us years to replicate in a perfect world. Years. And forget about being elite. I would settle for competitive. The season ended with some victories over some rivals, and that’s always nice. We even won our bowl game with an ad hoc staff after Mark Richt’s ouster a few weeks earlier. We were at the proverbial crossroads in so many ways.
Today’s date is August 1, 2019. That horrible wet day of defeat and cold, hard truths was exactly 3 years, 9 months and 29 days ago. How far have we come in what is really less than a single class. And, there is a football game this month. We are blessed.
But the real miracle in less than 4 short years (that has seen great success, by the way) is our current offensive line roster in no particular order:
- Andrew Thomas (Jr.) - 6’ 5” 320 lbs.
- Cade Mays (So.) - 6’ 6” 318 lbs.
- Owen Condon (Fr.) - 6’ 7” 310 lbs.
- Jamaree Salyer (So.) - 6’ 4” 326 lbs.
- Warren McClendon (Fr.) - 6’ 4” 320 lbs.
- Xavier Truss (Fr.) - 6’ 7” 330 lbs.
- Clay Webb (Fr.) - 6’ 3” 290 lbs.
- Ben Cleveland (r Jr.) 6’ 6” 334 lbs.
- Trey Hill (So.) 6’ 4” 330 lbs.
- Justin Shaffer (Jr.) 6’ 4” 330 lbs.
- Isaiah Wilson (r Jr.) 6’ 7” 340 lbs.
- Kendall Baker (Sr.) 6’ 6” 305 lbs.
- D’Marcus Hayes (Sr.) 6’ 5” 315 lbs.
- Sean Fogarty (Sr.) 6’ 4” 295 lbs.
- Solomon Kindley (Jr.) 6’ 4” 335 lbs.
- Warren Ericson (Fr.) 6’ 4” 305 lbs.
This group is littered with 3, 4 and 5 star guys that are being led by the best offensive line coach and recruiter in college football in Sam Pittman. In examining the players, our players, this is truly the miracle that has transpired in under 4 years with Kirby and Co. at the helm. More 4 and 5-Star guys are on the way in the next cycle and beyond.
I don’t really like to predict any given season, but I do feel confident that we’re going to be in Atlanta on the first Saturday in December, rolling in behind the best offensive line this program has ever fielded. Beyond that, who knows? Will we be healthy? Do we actually use the breaks that we will have to gain at some point - maybe 2 or 3 times during the course of the year. Every championship team faces a moment or two of adversity. Sometimes, it’s a dire emergency. How will we respond? Does Stetson Bennett have to spell Jake Fromm for a half? An entire game? Will our green-as-hell but super talented receiving corps “catch on” sooner than later? Belue to Scott in 1980 is still the Bulldog standard for overcoming adversity when everything was on the line. Will we have another moment like that for a new generation? We’re so overdue. Every Dawg Fan deserves to experience this in their lifetime (the near cardiac arrest and all). Oh, and a word about 1980 - my freshman year at UGA: I’m damned proud of it and will talk it up to anyone - friend or foe - who’ll listen. It happened and I’m so thankful it did. So, suck it all you Twitter Warriors who feel this is somehow something negative. Yeah, it has been a while, which is why the next one will be so incredibly sweet. Now, let’s go get it.
Man, the competition among the elite is tough. Nick Saban is the architect of the modern football superpower, and Dabo Swinney has done quite well taking that blueprint and tailoring it to fit his vision. It’s time to make room for the big Bulldog bully that is about to take up residence on the block. All the talkers who have spoken during this talking season seem to have Alabama and Clemson (deservedly so) as the top 1 and 2, with quite a few services bringing Georgia into the top 3 to 5. None of this matters today. Let’s talk in about 4 months, which will be here before you can blink and begin Christmas shopping.
So, yeah, I guess the entire point of this bit of an attempted analysis and a little trip down memory lane is this: These are the days, my friends. Right here...right damn now. As long as Kirby Smart and his band of Merry Gentlemen continue to do that voodoo that they do so well, we’re going to keep choppin’, keep the main thing the main thing and will break through. Sooner than later.
Will it be this year? I hope so. I like our chances.
There’s football this month. Hallelujah and pass the bourbon!