Georgia football coach Kirby Smart doesn't need to shop around long to find varying examples of postseason motivation during his time with the Bulldogs.
After missing out on the Southeastern Conference championship game for the first time since Smart's inaugural season in 2016, the Bulldogs (7-2) were selected Sunday to face Cincinnati in the Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl on New Year's Day. The Bearcats improved to 9-0 Saturday night by topping Tulsa 27-24 to win the American Athletic Conference title game on their home field.
"It's always critical to continue building success," Smart said. "We've had success in bowls, and we've had failure in bowls. We lost the Sugar Bowl, and we won the Sugar Bowl, and the things that most stick out in my mind are the approaches each team took to those games. It was so important to so many in terms of the Sugar Bowl against Baylor, but for the Sugar Bowl against Texas, it wasn't that way. Everybody didn't approach the game the same way.
"I think we learned a valuable lesson as a staff that it's not necessarily who you play with but what their mindset is when you go play a bowl game. The fact we've been out of it for a while in terms of not being in the SEC championship was new territory for us, so we've been dealing with that for the last couple of games."
After losing to Alabama in overtime in the national championship game of the 2017 season, Georgia led the Crimson Tide by two touchdowns in the 2018 SEC title contest before succumbing 35-28. The Bulldogs could not recover from another devastating setback to the Crimson Tide and were flat a few weeks later in a 28-21 Sugar Bowl defeat against a four-loss Texas team.
There were no "What ifs?" for Georgia in last season's SEC championship game, where the Bulldogs were routed 37-10 by LSU and then had starting offensive tackles Andrew Thomas and Isaiah Wilson elect to bypass the Sugar Bowl. They showed up in New Orleans motivated, however, and built a 19-0 lead against Baylor before cruising 26-14.
Georgia is coming off its most impressive win of the season, a 49-14 triumph at Missouri on Dec. 12, when its motivation was in question, but now the Bulldogs will prepare for the lone Group of Five conference representative in a New Year's Six bowl.
"Every coach will try to build their angle to where it gives their guys an edge or competitive advantage, whether that's them being ranked ahead of us or whatever," Smart said. "Group of Five, Power Five — that's a language for you guys. My language is football, and they've got a good football team.
"They haven't been beat, and they've beaten a lot of teams that I have a lot of respect for."
Group of Five teams are 3-3 in New Year's Six bowls through the first six seasons of the College Football Playoff, and that includes a 2-0 mark in Atlanta. Houston upset Florida State 38-24 in the Peach Bowl after the 2015 season, but the more memorable stunning was UCF's 34-27 dumping of Auburn two years later.
Auburn had defeated the two teams to vie for the 2017 national championship — Alabama and Georgia — by a combined 35 points during the regular season.
Cincinnati coach Luke Fickell spent the past few weeks lobbying his Bearcats for the four-team playoff, but they never made much headway in the views of the playoff committee members. Facing Georgia gives a Group of Five member another "David vs. Goliath" opportunity, but Fickell is approaching this matchup as a 10th and final statement game of the season.
"Every week is an opportunity for us to make a statement," Fickell said. "The great thing about college football is that it's unlike pro football and unlike basketball, which has a tournament. Every week means so much. Most of us can't make any slip-ups and still have an opportunity to get to the ultimate goal.
"The reality is we didn't get an opportunity, and Georgia didn't get that opportunity to play for a true championship, but we've both got an opportunity to make a statement."
With the exception of the Big 12 stumbling out of the gate with a trio of losses to Sun Belt Conference teams, there has not been the boasting of league pride due to this coronavirus-altered season. That could be about to change in these upcoming days.
"The hardest thing to judge this year is that nobody really played across conferences," Smart said. "They played their conference schedule, and we played our conference schedule, but most of the conferences stayed apart. The bowl is an opportunity to go out and play across conferences. You play for the pride of your conference."
Said Fickell: "We know what the SEC is all about, but in this 2020 year, I think everybody has already sacrificed so much. Anybody who is playing well at the end of the season has the motivation. I don't care what it is."
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