I did not believe.
Let’s start right there. On Monday night, the Georgia Bulldogs beat the Alabama Crimson Tide in the college football National Championship Game, to win UGA’s first title in 41 years.
But yeah, in retrospect, I’ll admit it: I did not believe.
In whom did I not believe? Well, there’s a long list.
First and foremost, Stetson Bennett: I did not think the former walk-on was a good enough quarterback to lead the Georgia Bulldogs to a National Championship. He certainly has an inspirational story, but a great background tale is traditionally not enough to beat the devil himself, Nick Saban.
I also did not believe that Kirby Smart was a good enough football coach to defeat Nick Saban. After all, Kirby Smart had lost four straight times to Saban, and didn’t really seem to be any closer to solving that puzzle than he had been four years ago, when Saban last beat UGA in a title game. Smart is undeniably a gifted recruiter, but he has not been able to get his football team past Saban’s.
Georgia defensive coordinator Dan Lanning had recently been hired as the head coach at Oregon, but I didn’t believe that he was any closer to understanding how to stop Alabama than he had been 37 days ago when Bama put up 41 points against this vaunted Dawgs defense.
Zamir White? George Pickens? William Poole? Dan Jackson? AD Mitchell? All terrific players, who contributed to UGA being 13-1 heading into the National Championship game. But were they the kind of players who would help UGA win their first title in 41 seasons?
Well, I didn’t believe that they were. In fact, I didn’t think UGA was going to beat Alabama in the National Championship game. Perhaps this was a conditioned response to years of Alabama beating UGA, but in the days leading up to the game, I found myself at peace with the thought of Alabama beating UGA. There is an order to life, after all, and Georgia losing to Nick Saban’s Alabama teams just seemed like part of that natural order.
I also had trouble believing because I’d been hurt before. I still clearly remember 2017, and I remember 2012. I remember Eric Zeier and Jacob Eason and all the QBs who were supposed to lead us to titles. As someone who has rooted for the University of Georgia Bulldogs for my entire life, I was led to believe that we just weren’t good enough.
And the Dawgs certainly began the game like they were outmatched. On the opening drive, Stetson Bennett fumbled (and recovered) the ball, then drew a delay of game penalty before UGA was forced to punt. Better warm up JT Daniels, our five-star back-up QB, I thought. When UGA had 6 points at halftime, I once again thought about Daniels and wondered if he would get a chance.
The good news, at least for UGA, was that they blitzed the Tide early and often, and continued to bring it throughout the night. It was a simple adjustment, one even a pedestrian like myself noted might be prudent, and it turned out to be correct—when Bryce Young was on the run, he struggled to complete passes. Once Jameson Williams went down with a torn ACL, the Tide seemed even shorter on options to stretch the field.
(I understand that Alabama was already without wide receiver John Metchie III, and then they lost Williams. Yet I find it hard to believe that a team with a top three recruiting class year after year after year only has two wide receivers who are any good on their depth chart. But I digress…)
UGA opened the second half with another punt, and I was really getting antsy. UGA’s defense was playing well, holding Alabama to field goals whenever they reached the red zone. UGA got an interception and took over inside the 50, but had to punt again. This much I knew for sure: Stetson Bennett was not good enough. Kirby Smart wasn’t going to take Bennett out. And UGA was not going to beat Alabama.
Then UGA ran the ball four plays in a row and went 80 yards for a TD. Alabama ripped off 9 points to go ahead 18-13.
Which was when Stetson Bennett turned into Aaron Rodgers, leading UGA on consecutive TD drives (one 75 yards, one 62 yards) to go up 26-18. I didn’t think he had it in him. I didn’t believe. But Bennett believed.
In the waning moments, when Kelee Ringo picked off Bryce Young and weaved his way to the end zone, running 79 yards for a TD, putting UGA up for good, 33-18, I stood in my mancave and silently danced in a little circle. In that moment, I thought about the symmetry of Ringo wearing number 5, like Garrison Hearst wore back when I attended UGA, and like DB Damian Swann wore a decade ago. I thought about all the other players who have come and gone without winning a title. I thought about all the time I spent on that campus, all the days I spent wandering around downtown Athens, wondering what I was going to make out of my life. And I realized that it was happening. UGA was actually going to win a National Championship. I sat back down on the couch and smiled and felt a little woozy.
Your favorite teams aren’t supposed to win titles every year. Championships are the rarest of achievements, built through years or even decades of work. Alabama could go one hundred years without winning another title, and I would feel no sympathy. You aren’t supposed to get six titles in 13 years, or whatever it is that Saban has done at Alabama, or what Jordan did in Chicago, or what Wooden did at UCLA. Maybe you have an incredible circumstance and get back-to-back rings or something like that, but for the most part, a championship is an incredibly rare and precious thing.
Which is why we cherish the sensation the way we do. That’s why we cry when our teams win, it’s why we hug strangers and high five random people because of the t-shirt they’re wearing. It’s why I got a million text messages and DMs on Monday night, and it’s why I’ve been making intermittent barking noises in public over the last few days.
It was a journey to get here, but finally, my college football team won it all. And now I’m sitting in my office, listening to R.E.M. (shoutout Athens) the morning after the Georgia Bulldogs finally beat Nick Saban to win a National Championship. What a time to be alive.
Woof, woof, woof, woof, woof.