Losing a close game is a miserable experience. When your team gets blown out, you can wash yourself of the entire experience, banishing it from your head like a drunken one-night stand. In contrast, when your team comes up short in a game that comes down to the final play, the natural response is to toss and turn in bed, thinking about every little play that might have swung the outcome, every unlucky bounce, every close call. This is true for any close game, let alone a conference championship game against the defending national champion with a trip to the BCS title game on the line for a program that has not won a national title for 32 years. Saturday night was brutal for Georgia fans, one that would naturally lead fans to ask the "if not now, when?" question about Georgia playing for and then winning a national title.
It's easy for someone like me, a casual Georgia fan, to say this, but when the emotional pain wears off, Dawg zealots should look back on Saturday night's game as a positive. Against the best team in the country, a program that has recruited better than any other over the past five years and is going for its third national title in four years, Georgia gave as good as they got for sixty minutes. The Dawgs took a 21-10 lead in the third quarter and then responded to the Tide's two-touchdown rally with a five-play, 75-yard drive to go back ahead in the fourth quarter. When the Tide took the lead again and left Georgia with only a minute to save themselves, the Dawgs moved the ball 81 yards in a flash, ultimately coming just eight yards short of what would have been one of the great wins in program history. For a team that has been derided in recent years as being mentally soft, Georgia showed great resilience throughout.the game. One year ago, Georgia folded when LSU hit them with a run late in the first half. This year, Georgia responded to the Bama surges every time.
I can think of few instances in which I have been prouder of Richt than in the post-game press conference when he brusquely dismissed Chuck Oliver's ludicrous, passive-aggressive questions about Georgia's reputation in big games. Oliver frankly embarrassed himself by asking a question on behalf of unnamed "fans" when Richt opens himself up to direct questions from the public every week on his call-in show. If fans want to ask him about big games, then they can do so themselves without Oliver acting as a mouthpiece. In truth, Oliver wanted to make the accusation, but he didn't have the cojones to bring the charge himself.
More importantly, how in the world could someone have watched Georgia's performance and think that the "under-performs in big games" label has any value whatsoever when applied to this team? As if beating #2 Florida on a neutral field to win the SEC East - thereby handing the Gators their only loss of the season - and putting themselves in the SEC Championship Game wasn't winning a big game, Georgia had just scared the bejeezus of a Nick Saban team in a title game. They answered every punch thrown at them and were one deflection away from potentially winning as an eight-point underdog. Yes, Chuck, that must mean that Richt and Aaron Murray can't handle pressure.
Without knowing it, Bill Barnwell described the situation perfectly when he wrote about the Falcons in the aftermath of their win over the Saints last Thursday night. The "can't win the big one" label is, more often than not, a canard based on a small sample size and an accident of sequence:
And now, of course, the next step in our road map for the Falcons is to win a playoff game with Ryan at the helm. Since Atlanta already has a playoff spot virtually sealed up, Ryan and the Falcons are going to spend the next four weeks deflecting that same question about their legitimacy in interview after interview, something Ryan already had to do during the postgame show last night. That criticism conflates the words "haven't" and "can't." It suggests that there's something lacking about Ryan's abilities or even Atlanta's character. That both Ryan and his team truly can't be taken seriously - that they don't deserve to be taken seriously - until they beat somebody in January. I don't know that the Falcons will win the Super Bowl or even that lone playoff game this year, but impugning Ryan and his team on some sort of illegitimate-until-they-win argument is lazy. There is no next hurdle for the Falcons to cross because that's a narrative trick, not a genuine way that people win or lose football games.
Barnwell's point is that we should not read too much into a small sample size of results (in that instance, three playoff games) when history offers up plenty of examples of unquestionably great quarterbacks who lost three straight playoff games. We can make the same point with college football coaches. It took Joe Paterno a bevy of close calls before Penn State won a national title in his 17th season as the head coach in State College. (Georgia fans might remember the circumstances.) Bobby Bowden won his first national title in his 18th season at Florida State and only after excruciating misses in 1987, 1991, and 1992 where the Noles lost three games against Miami by a total of five points. If Paterno and Bowden - the two winningest coaches in major college football history - could be derided with the label of not getting it done in big games, then Richt ought to take Oliver's insulting line of questioning as a compliment.
It is especially weak to criticize Richt for his performance on Saturday night when, to these somewhat impartial eyes who opined last week that the coaching match-up was an instance of good versus great, he out-coached Saban. Richt wasn't the one who completely butchered a time management situation at the end of the first half and went into the locker room with a pair of unused timeouts. Richt wasn't the one who repeatedly rushed three in the final minute and allowed Georgia to almost come back from the dead. After the game, most of the attention was directed to Georgia's decision not to spike the ball before their final snap, but as Chris Brown explains, that was hardly a mistake. Richt's team scored a touchdown on special teams. Richt's team executed a fake punt perfectly as opposed to Bama getting a delay of game penalty before trying their fake. Georgia looked like a well-prepared team, one that had found the right mix between being fired up and playing under control.
Alabama won the game in large part because they have recruited and developed a fantastic offensive line and two excellent running backs to charge through the holes produced by that line. Bama needed every ounce of production from their running game because the Dawgs put up as good an offensive performance as we have seen against Alabama in two years, save possibly for the one delivered by the presumptive Heisman winner three weeks ago. Aaron Murray's last three performances in "big games" against LSU, South Carolina, and Florida had produced an aggregate line of 39 of 95 for 422 yards (a puny 4.4 yards per attempt) with two touchdowns and seven picks. On Saturday, Murray almost doubled his production as compared to that small sample, throwing for eight yards per attempt with one touchdown and one interception. Not only did Richt coach well, but his oft-criticized quarterback played well against the type of opponent that allegedly owned him.
It sucks to come close and lose, but as Paterno and Bowden illustrate, it is better to come close and lose than to not come close at all. If Georgia fans need an illustration as to this maxim, then they ought to cast their attention 110 miles southwest on I-85. In 2010, Auburn got every conceivable good bounce and won the national title. The Tigers won their championship out of the blue, as they were two years removed from firing their head coach and had gone 13-12 in the two prior seasons. Auburn's success came from a void and they have promptly returned to that void, going 11-14 since beating Oregon in Glendale. Dawg fans, would you rather be in Auburn's shoes? Would you rather have that national title that has eluded you for more than three decades, but now find yourselves looking for a coach again after an 0-8 season in the SEC? What matters more: a brief highlight or sustained success?
I just finished the highly entertaining My Heart is an Idiot and there is a passage that applies nicely for Georgia fans. In the chapter "Canada or Bust," the author, Davy Rothbart, is giving a ride from Los Angeles to San Francisco to a St. Pauli Girl named Missy and a vagabond DJ named Hakim. The latter is trying to make it to Vancouver because it seems like a potential paradise for him:
But what would happen once he reached Canada? Missy and I had talked about it for a bit after he'd first fallen asleep. It's appealing to imaging that if we can just get that one thing in our life to work out - if we can get the job we want, finish writing that book or making that movie, get the right girl or get to Canada - that everything will be solved, absolved, good to go for good. I slipped into that way of thinking too often, I admitted to Missy, even though I knew that sometimes in life all of a sudden there you were - standing with your Technics turntables just across from the Canada border, and you're not a new you, you're just you, but in Canada.
Winning the 2010 national title didn't change who Gene Chizik was. He was still the same guy who went 5-19 at Iowa State, the same guy who would go on to run off the assistant whose offensive style made the 14-0 season possible. Losing the 2012 SEC Championship Game doesn't change who Mark Richt is. He's still one of the best coaches in Georgia history. If anything, Richt's performance against the Tide should make Georgia fans more confident that he will ultimately get them to the promised land. Paterno's team was stymied by the Tide at the goal line in the 1979 Sugar Bowl, but JoePa was a champion three years later on the same field. Bowden's team was a two-point conversion away against the Canes in 1987 and then a matter of feet away from a winning field goal in 1991. Two years later, Bowden had his crown on the Orange Bowl field. Coming close and losing in a big game isn't an insult or a reason to opine that a coach or a quarterback is a choker; it's a positive sign that the guys in charge did enough to get to that point in the first place.