Picking up the pieces in a major bowl game was not an Alabama strong suit during Kirby Smart's time as the Crimson Tide's defensive coordinator.
Smart can adjust that narrative as he wraps up his third season as Georgia's head coach.
The Bulldogs had a chance to take a 31-14 lead over Alabama midway through the third quarter of last Saturday's Southeastern Conference championship game, but Rodrigo Blankenship missed a 30-yard field-goal attempt and Alabama backup quarterback Jalen Hurts produced two fourth-quarter touchdown drives to cap a 35-28 comeback triumph.
It was the second heartbreaking defeat for Georgia against the Tide within 11 months inside Atlanta's Mercedes-Benz Stadium, but January's 26-23 overtime thriller was the College Football Playoff final and thus the season-ending game for both teams. The current Bulldogs (11-2) do not have an opportunity to repeat last season's playoff run and will instead play Big 12 runner-up Texas (9-4) in the Sugar Bowl on Jan. 1.
"The first thing you do is turn on the tape of the Texas football team, and you find out right away that they're well-coached," Smart said. "As far as our players, these kids recover faster than you think they do. Obviously there is disappointment with our last result, but there is also the opportunity to move forward with a young team."
Attaining a top-five national ranking and a fifth season in program history with 12 or more wins will have to serve as motivation for the Bulldogs, while Smart will seek to avoid the same Sugar Bowl hangover that affected a pair of his teams while working for Alabama coach Nick Saban.
Alabama was undefeated when it took a 20-17 lead over Florida into the fourth quarter of the 2008 SEC title game, but quarterback Tim Tebow rallied the Gators to a 31-20 win. While Florida went on to win that season's BCS national championship, the uninspired Tide went to the Sugar Bowl and fell behind Utah 21-0 within the first 11 minutes of an eventual 31-17 loss.
Alabama coaches and players vowed things would be different in the Sugar Bowl after the 2013 regular season, when the Tide's bid for a national title three-peat ended with the dramatic "Kick Six" loss at Auburn. There wasn't the slow start this time around in New Orleans, with a 67-yard touchdown pass from AJ McCarron to DeAndrew White in the first minute of the second quarter giving Alabama a 17-14 lead over Oklahoma, but the Sooners closed the half on a 17-0 run and went on to win 45-31.
"These kids aren't quite as experienced in that kind of bowl environment as maybe those Alabama teams that didn't play as well as we probably should have," Smart said. "It's definitely a challenge, and it's the challenge we're presented. That's what we've been given, and we're looking at this as an opportunity to spring forward into the next year."
Georgia's second consecutive SEC East championship transpired this season with a younger roster than last year and what's expected to be a younger roster than next season's team. The Bulldogs had six senior starters last Saturday — cornerback Deandre Baker, center Lamont Gaillard, receiver Terry Godwin, defensive end Jonathan Ledbetter, inside linebacker Juwan Taylor and outside linebacker D'Andre Walker — but also started two true freshmen and two redshirt freshmen.
Baker is projected as a first-round pick in the 2019 NFL draft and on Thursday night won the Jim Thorpe Award as the nation's top defensive back. He told reporters he will play in the Sugar Bowl and that he will be motivated.
"It's a good bowl to play in, and Texas is a good team," Baker said. "We want to finish up strong."
The Sugar Bowl will mark Georgia's 22nd consecutive year with a postseason appearance, and the Bulldogs haven't played in New Orleans since capping the 2007 season with a 41-10 humbling of Hawaii. Georgia has a chance to even its record in Louisiana this season, having lost 36-16 at LSU on Oct. 13, a game that got away from the Bulldogs despite tremendous support from their traveling fans.
Smart hopes those supporters and more will witness this Georgia team one final time this season.
"Our fans have never let us down," Smart said. "They will follow us. They follow us all over the country, and they're passionate about football."
Five freshmen picked
Georgia had an SEC-leading five players named Thursday to the league's All-Freshman team, which was voted on by the coaches. Representing the Bulldogs were punter Jake Camarda, defensive lineman Jordan Davis, quarterback Justin Fields and offensive linemen Cade Mays and Isaiah Wilson.
Alabama and Texas A&M each had four representatives.
Contact David Paschall at email@example.com or 423-757-6524.