Georgia football teams are no strangers to regular season conference losses, but this one is different.
In 2017, the Bulldogs overcame a 40-17 drubbing on the road against No. 10 ranked Auburn and found themselves in the College Football Playoff and eventually the national championship game. Last season, Georgia was again victimized on the road in the SEC, this time in a 36-16 loss to No. 6 ranked LSU in Death Valley. The Bulldogs were able to rally and make it to the conference championship where they lost a tight match against Alabama.
But Saturday’s loss against unranked South Carolina is different in a lot of ways. For starters, it was at home. This is the first loss in Sanford Stadium for Georgia since the 2016 loss to Georgia Tech in Kirby Smart’s first season as head coach.
“The best team doesn’t always win, it’s the team that plays the best,” linebacker Monty Rice said. “We got outplayed.”
Georgia’s loss to South Carolina looks bad, really bad. And the Bulldogs will have a tougher time regaining the trust of the College Football Playoff committee than they did in 2017. South Carolina played extremely well in what was a hostile environment in Sanford Stadium, but its overall resume suggests they aren’t a great team.
Entering Saturday’s game, the Gamecocks were 2-3, with their only wins against Charleston Southern and Kentucky. South Carolina was 59th in the country in points allowed, and Alabama scored 47 points on them less than a month ago. Losing at home to a team like that is something the committee can’t overlook, and they’ve shown in the past that they won’t.
Last season, Ohio State finished sixth in the final CFP rankings despite a one loss record and a Big Ten title under its belt. The one loss to unranked Purdue was what kept the Buckeyes out. So, even if Georgia manage to win out and secure an SEC championship, that might not be enough.
Before the Bulldogs even think about a potential playoff appearance, they are going to have to find a way out of the SEC East. This season is arguably the strongest the conference has been in years, and Florida is a big reason why.
The No. 7 ranked Gators are undefeated through six weeks, and are co-favorites to win the division following Georgia’s first loss. The Bulldogs will have a chance to settle that debate on the field when they travel to Jacksonville, Florida, for the annual meeting with their bitter rivals across the border.
“I think for Florida and Georgia, it’ll be the game of the year,” former Florida quarterback and current analyst Tim Tebow said this week. “It’s must win because they’re both in the SEC East. I don’t think there’s another matchup in the East that’s even close.”
If it’s possible, that matchup is now more of a must-win for Georgia given what transpired against South Carolina. A loss to Florida would likely bury the Bulldogs chances of making the SEC championship, and their playoff aspirations with them.
The loss to the Gamecocks also brings Georgia’s late-season matchup at Auburn into sharper focus, as that too becomes a potential must-win matchup. It won’t be an easy one, as the No. 12 ranked Tigers boast one of the best run defenses in the country with future NFL pros Derrick Brown and Nick Coe on the defensive line.
The Georgia players are aware of how critical these games against SEC opponents are, and they just became a lot more valuable.
“These games are like eggs,” Rice said. “That’s what we said in the spring. They’re golden opportunities and you have to make the most of them."
Many of the players were asked how the team will move forward from this loss. Most of the upperclassmen were here for the losses to Auburn and LSU, and know how to come back from a defeat. For Smart, his message to the team going forward is clear.
“The message is we’re a team, we stick together,” Smart said. “When things get thick, we come together even better. The outcome of this game affects everyone outside of our building, but inside our building we just get tighter and we go get better.”