My best friend from college once theorized that sports commentators make a living from never being wrong. If they predict an outcome or trend, and said outcome or trend ends up going 180 degrees the other way, they either cherry-pick plays and statistics that support what they'd been saying all along, or they go the North Korea route, dump their idiotic prediction down the memory hole and act like they never even said it.
Two months ago, as Georgia's football team sat in a pile of flaming wreckage outside Williams-Brice Stadium in Columbia, I said I'd officially lost confidence in Mark Richt. We'd won plenty of games under him, I reflected, and would surely win plenty more, but none of them would be important, none of them would propel Georgia to greater heights or establish the Bulldogs as an elite program on the national stage. To my mind, Richt was both the force that had made Georgia consistently good and the ceiling preventing us from ever being great again.
Less than 36 hours after one of the most heartbreaking losses in Georgia football history is an odd time to be making this confession, but here it is: I was wrong.
I was wrong, obviously, when I gave up on Georgia's chances to advance to the SEC Championship Game. I was wrong when I predicted we wouldn't figure into the race for anything more consequential than the Outback Bowl. And I was dead wrong when I said we'd lost our ability to show up in big games. Be unhappy that Georgia lost to Alabama on Saturday — be mad, even, if that's your instinct — but don't waste your time or anyone else's trying to explain how Georgia didn't show up.
What the Bulldogs did Saturday evening was face off against perhaps the only true college-football dynasty of the 21st century and stand up to them for 60 minutes. Against a team that may very well be the best in the country in 2012 — and that will have a chance to prove as much in a month's time — they put themselves in position to win right up to the bitter end. They led the game for 29 minutes and 29 seconds, whereas Alabama led for only a little over eight minutes; they just happened to be the right eight minutes. And still, Georgia was just five yards away from a defining victory.
The Georgia team that took the field in Atlanta this past weekend was a far cry from the team that withered and died on the same field a year ago, or the one that collapsed in Columbia back in October. Saturday's team looked a lot closer to the one that weathered a brutal game in Jacksonville on Oct. 27 and may have exorcised the Florida bugaboo for good. In some ways, it was better — the Tide just happened to be a better team than the Gators were. That's the way it goes sometimes. Be disappointed in the outcome of the SEC Championship Game, but I don't see how you can be disappointed in the effort our players and coaches put forth.
I realize that "Hey, Georgia showed up" is not an especially high bar to be setting for our football program. But if you believe — as I did — that Richt and his team had plowed themselves into a rut where they were virtually predestined to look intimidated and unprepared anytime a real challenge presented itself, then Saturday's game had to have been a revelation. Consider just how far we've come from the embarrassing nadir of the 2010 season, when we couldn't win a big game and were hardly even a sure bet to win the small ones. The following year, the Dawgs re-learned how to take care of business in games they should win; this year they re-learned how to stand tall as underdogs against juggernaut opponents, snatching a win that may have kept an arch-rival from playing for the national title and coming five yards away from playing for that title themselves.
What the next step is for Richt and the Bulldogs, I have no idea. I've made grandiose predictions on the heels of thrilling regular-season finishes before and ended up disappointed, so I'm going to refrain from assuming that Richt has firmly re-established Georgia as a national powerhouse based on one valiantly fought defeat. But at the bare minimum, I'm going to have to walk back my earlier declaration that the Dawgs can't show up in a big game under Richt or that he's fundamentally incapable of making his team a contender. I was wrong about those, and it took this classic of a game, perhaps the single best SEC Championship Game that's ever been played, to make me realize that.
Two teams showed up at the Georgia Dome on Saturday. Both teams played, and both teams put forth every last bit of effort and courage they had. One team won, and the other team didn't. But I find myself equally awed by both.