HOOVER — Two of the most excruciating losses in recent Georgia football history have come against the same team on two of college football’s biggest stages.
Remember 2nd and 26 in January 2018? With the Bulldogs one defensive stop away from their first national title since 1981, Alabama’s Tua Tagovailoa launched a 41-yard touchdown pass to give the Crimson Tide a 26-23 overtime win.
In that game, Georgia led 13-0 at halftime and 20-10 late in the third quarter before the Tide rallied to win.
Less than a year later, the stage was the SEC championship game. And once again, Alabama turned back the Bulldogs with a 35-28 win that came down to the final moments.
As in the national championship game, former Alabama assistant coach Kirby Smart watched from the Georgia sideline as Nick Saban’s team found a way to win. Georgia led 21-7 and 28-14 before Alabama rallied, winning 35-28 on Jalen Hurts’ 15-yard TD dash with 1:04 to play.
The winning score came after a failed fake punt near midfield by the Bulldogs.
On Tuesday at SEC Football Kickoff Media Days, Smart and cornerback J.R. Reed insisted they aren’t using the most recent loss as motivation for this season. Instead, they say this year’s theme of “Do More,” to hopefully fuel another run toward postseason play.
“It's a great theme because it's simple,” Smart said. “We like it because we understand how close we've been to taking the next step. And although 24 and 5 the last two seasons is good, it's not good enough. It's not where we expect to be at the University of Georgia.”
Smart said bridging the gap between is dependent on Georgia’s focus and not about other teams.
“Those words require action,” he said. “… We want to do more at the University of Georgia. We're not complacent in what we've done, and we know we need to take that next step.”
Reed, a standout defensive back, said the next step starts with looking ahead to the season opener against Vanderbilt and not glancing too far down the schedule.
“Just focus on the games we got going ahead,” Reed said. “We’ll focus on Bama when we get to Bama or we see Bama. Right now, we have to focus on Vanderbilt, which is our first opponent. We can’t look ahead way down the line because we might not make it there if we look that far ahead.”
Although the biggest step forward ultimately would be to beat Alabama on one of those big stages, Smart was reminded that Saban’s former assistants are 0-16 against him.
“I’m well aware,” Smart responded. “Am I confident somebody's going to beat him? It depends how long he coaches. It depends on how many opportunities they get. Inevitably, with enough opportunities, anything can happen. I got a lot of respect for the job he does. I got a lot of respect for the program. The success he's gotten has been earned. Make no mistake about that. He's earned it. There's not one thing he asked assistant coaches to do that he doesn't do himself.”
Reed, who had eight tackles and an interception in the SEC Championship game loss, said the Bulldogs are not snakebitten when it comes to playing Alabama.
“We just got outplayed, plain and simple,” he said. “I can’t dwell on the past and think about the game. Honestly, I don’t think about that game a lot. I think about this team and how we can get better and where we have to go going forward.”
Instead of dwelling on the past, Reed said the motivation comes from within.
“What motivates us is us,” he said. “The man in the mirror. Our team. Our buddies. That’s what motivates me.”
For Reed, the prize is getting back to the big stage regardless of the opponent.
“I just want a crack at the SEC championship and the nati championship,” he said. “I don’t care who it is – I just want to line up and play and I want to win.”
For Smart and Reed, the first step in the process of getting another shot at Alabama starts with the opener against Vanderbilt.
“Well, the next step for us, and I don't mean this to be trite, but it's Vanderbilt,” Smart said. “You have to get to that point because we don't have Alabama on our schedule.”