Georgia football: Bulldog seniors leaving a high standard after 13-2 season
ATLANTA -- Southeastern Conference teams have won nine of the last 12 national championships in college football, with Alabama adding its fifth title during this surge with Monday night's 26-23 overtime victory over Georgia inside a frenzied Mercedes-Benz Stadium.
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Three years after winning the 2010 BCS national championship with Cam Newton at quarterback, Auburn lost the BCS title game following the 2013 season to Florida State on a touchdown pass from Jameis Winston to Kelvin Benjamin with 13 seconds remaining. Alabama's win Monday night occurred a year after the Crimson Tide lost the title to Clemson on a touchdown toss from Deshaun Watson to Hunter Renfrow with one second left.
Georgia's dagger was a 41-yard touchdown strike from Tua Tagovailoa to DeVonta Smith on second-and-26, and it may take some time before the painful sting gives way to the countless accomplishments the Bulldogs attained in Kirby Smart's second season as head coach.
Coach Smart: “This is a special, special group. These seniors... you gave so much to this program, every one of you seniors. You did it the right way. These seniors set a standard around here that you young players better understand, because now the standard is here.”#GoDawgs pic.twitter.com/Sp7WqJWRsu— Georgia Football (@FootballUGA) January 9, 2018
"We tried to set the standard high so the younger guys know where to take it from here," senior running back Sony Michel said early Tuesday morning in a news conference. "We fell short, and I think the guys who are coming back understand what it's going to take plus more to get back here."
The Bulldogs had a first national championship since 1980 within their grasp with a 13-0 lead at halftime and a 20-10 lead entering the fourth quarter. Yet their 2017 season also will be remembered for their first league title since 2005 and for historic wins at Notre Dame and in the Rose Bowl.
Georgia's 13-2 season arguably began in December 2016, when Michel, fellow tailback Nick Chubb and outside linebackers Davin Bellamy and Lorenzo Carter announced they would be returning for their senior years.
"I can't put into words what these seniors have meant," Smart said. "We're running out of the tunnel tonight, and Nick comes up to me and says, 'I'll go anywhere with you, and I'll follow you anywhere. I'll fight for you, because I believe in you.' That meant more to me than anything.
"I just hope the younger classes don't take it for granted that it's just going to happen. You've got to make it happen."
The Bulldogs returned 14 of their top 15 tacklers from last season's Liberty Bowl champions and became a top-five defense nationally. Next season's defense could return as few as three starters from Monday night if junior inside linebacker and Butkus Award winner Roquan Smith and junior cornerback Deandre Baker, who had an interception of Tue Tagovailoa in the title game, leave early for the NFL.
Offensively, Georgia has the potential of returning four starters up front to go along with quarterback Jake Fromm, running back D'Andre Swift, receivers Riley Ridley and Terry Godwin and tight end Isaac Nauta. The Bulldogs improved their scoring average from 24 to 34 points a game this year, which will leave offensive coordinator Jim Chaney looking back with a lot of fond memories.
"I am so proud of these kids, and we couldn't have been prouder to represent Georgia this season," Chaney said. "How can you not feel good about this year and the improvements that we made from year one to year two? This staff really blended together, and we just get along with each other so well.
"We have a really good chemistry of coaches and players. It's been a fun thing, and next year will be a whole different team."
Odds and ends
Fromm's 80-yard touchdown pass to Mecole Hardman midway through the third quarter was Georgia's longest aerial connection since Aaron Murray and Reggie Davis hooked up for a 98-yard score in 2013. ... The Bulldogs finished this season 53-of-55 in the red zone with 39 touchdowns. ... Chubb finished his career with 4,769 rushing yards, while Michel wound up with 3,638. ... Monday's championship game had a 16.7 overnight rating on ESPN, a 9-percent jump over last season's Clemson-Alabama rematch.
This article is written by David Paschall from Chattanooga Times Free Press, Tenn. and was legally licensed via the Tribune Content Agency through the NewsCred publisher network. Please direct all licensing questions to firstname.lastname@example.org.