Before Georgia’s 2018 season even began, the path to another appearance in the College Football Playoff was clear. It would go through the Alabama Crimson Tide in Atlanta during the SEC championship game.
Well, here it is.
The Bulldogs and Crimson Tide are scheduled to meet in the 2018 SEC Championship game on Dec. 1. It could serve as a de facto CFP quarterfinal, as Georgia’s win over Auburn in last year’s SEC title game did. And it could also mean evenge for the Bulldogs, who could capture a second-straight conference championship while also avenging a gut-wrenching loss in the national title game to the Crimson Tide in January.
Georgia’s road back to the doorstep of college football’s pinnacle comes to a head on Dec. 1, but only if the Bulldogs take care of business against rival Georgia Tech on Saturday in Athens.
A win would put the Bulldogs right back in the position they were in last year, when they were underdogs in a conference title game with a shot at proving their place amongst the elite. But if Georgia can’t stop the Yellow Jacket triple option offense, the dreams of returning the playoff will go by the wayside.
And the Georgia coaching staff appears to recognize that threat, and it has invested a lot of time in making sure that an unorthodox scheme won’t down the Bulldogs’ big-picture goals.
"Tech [preparation] has been really serious,” senior linebacker Natrez Patrick said. “During the spring, it's a day every week. During [fall] camp, we've got a day every week. Just because they're so different. It's hard to play against, honestly."
Georgia is heavily favored to beat the 7-4 Yellow Jackets and move towards the SEC title game at 11-1, with all of its dreams intact. But there was a point in the year where that scenario looked far from guaranteed.
The Bulldogs were throttled by LSU on Oct. 13 on the road, as they gave up 275 rushing yards in a 36-16 beating at the hands of the Tigers.
It appeared that Georgia’s flaws had, perhaps, been exposed. The question-mark run defense was gashed. Jake Fromm performed woefully against a great pass defense. The Bulldogs spiraled to a blowout loss in their first real moment of adversity against a good team in the 2018 season.
But after the loss, Georgia head coach Kirby Smart tried to reel in the magnitude of the defeat. And he turned out to be right.
“The key for us is to move forward,” Georgia head coach Kirby Smart said after the LSU loss. “We still have a good football team. We still have an opportunity to do everything we want to do. Every opportunity we had before this game is still in front of us. The margin of error is just smaller.”
Georgia came into the Georgia Tech matchup last year in almost identical circumstances. It was 10-1, headed to Atlanta for the SEC title game and just on the outside of the top four of the CFP rankings.
The regular-season road for the Bulldogs would look almost identical to that of last season with a win on Saturday, with a devastating road blowout loss and subsequent bounce back accompanying them in both runs.
At the end of the day, the end result of the regular season would be the same. 11-1, but with all of the title dreams still there for the taking.
The road back doesn’t often go as planned for teams that faced what Georgia did, especially when a program loses players the caliber of those that the Bulldogs did from last year’s team. But it was the process and plan that last season implemented that guided the Bulldogs back to where they are now.
They’re one win away from securing a shot that could net them another SEC title, avenge a bitter defeat and clinch yet another playoff appearance. But the latter of those rewards is only in play if the Bulldogs take care of business on Saturday against the Yellow Jackets.
And if that happens, the road back to Big Bad Bama will be complete.
"What happened last year was the blueprint, laid it out for what we're doing this year,” junior safety J.R. Reed said. “We had the blueprint and this year, we just had to go ahead and follow it. We've done that so far. We've just got to go ahead and finish it."