Even after title-game losses, Georgia, Baylor still shooting for a big win in New Orleans
NEW ORLEANS – Georgia and Baylor got to New Orleans a little earlier than they would have preferred.
Both had their sights set on playing for the College Football Playoff Championship on Jan. 13 in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome, but both came up one victory short in their last games.
Georgia lost to LSU 37-10 in the SEC Championship Game on Dec. 7 and Baylor lost to Oklahoma 30-23 in overtime in the Big XII Championship Game the same day.
Even after those losses, the No. 5 Bulldogs (11-2) and the No. 7 Bears (11-2) were still the highest-ranked teams from their conferences not to qualify for the CFP, which automatically sent them to Superdome to meet in the 85th Allstate Sugar Bowl on Wednesday night.
It’s the second consecutive season that Georgia has found itself in the Sugar Bowl after finishing second in the SEC. Last season the Bulldogs didn’t do a very good job of shaking off a 35-28 loss to Alabama and lost to underdog Texas 28-21 in a Sugar Bowl game that wasn’t as competitive as the score might suggest.
That Georgia team was even more disappointed than this one because it thought it might still get into the CFP after the narrow loss. But this team fell off the CFP radar as LSU pulled away.
“I think this team is a lot more excited to play in this game,” tight end Charlie Woerner said.
Baylor is in a similar situation to the one Texas was in because the Big XII title game loss doesn’t change the fact that this has been a resurgent season for the program.
Texas put its Big XII title loss to Oklahoma behind it and demonstrated that the program was improving, though this year’s team hasn’t built on that success.
The Bears have been one of the biggest surprises in college football as they have become nationally prominent again, just two years removed from a 1-11 season.
“It’s incredible,” linebacker Jordan Williams said. “I never saw myself being in the Sugar Bowl. Three years ago, no one saw the end of the journey.
“Those past seasons built up for this. They were stepping stones to build on to coming into this year. We have a chance to go out there and really prove ourselves. We are going to prove we can go out there and play with some of the best guys in the country.”
Baylor squandered a 28-3 lead and lost to the Sooners 34-31 at home just three weeks before the overtime title game loss.
“At the time that loss hurt but we’d be foolish to let that carry on this long,” offensive lineman Sam Tecklenburg said of the second loss. “We have an unbelievable opportunity to be here at the Sugar Bowl and everyone is fully focused on this game.”
The Bears’ turnaround under third-year coach Matt Rhule has been so impressive that he reportedly in a prime target to become the next head coach of the New York Giants, who fired Pat Shurmur on Monday after a 4-12 season. Rhule was an assistant with the Giants in 2012.
Georgia is going to be short-handed because of injuries, suspensions and players skipping the game to focus on getting ready for the NFL. The Bulldogs already were short-handed at wide receiver, which limited them against LSU.
They have since lost three starting offensive linemen, their best safety and a starting defensive tackle.
Coach Kirby Smart said they have practiced faster and for a shorter period of time – partly because of the missing players, partly to try and coax a better performance out of his team than it gave in last year’s Sugar Bowl.
“It’s been like starting over,” Smart said.
Several Bulldogs said they’re excited to see younger players take advantage of the opportunity to take on bigger roles.
“We’re still Georgia,” Woerner said.
Running back D’Andre Swift has been battling a shoulder injury for weeks. He’s practicing, but it’s unclear how effective he’ll be or even if he will play.
“I’m doing everything I can to play in this game,” Swift said.
Whichever team wins will end its season with a significant accomplishment in New Orleans – even though it won’t be the one they would have preferred,
“You don’t want to go out two years in a row losing in this game,” Georgia linebacker Monty Rice said.
As for the Bears, they’re aware that Oklahoma lost to LSU in historic fashion (63-28) in the CFP Semifinal at the Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl last Saturday. They also know that through Tuesday the conference was winless in the post-season as Oklahoma State lost to Texas A&M (24-21) and Iowa State lost to Notre Dame (33-9).
Baylor defensive tackle Bravvion Roy said the Sugar Bowl “most definitely” means more to the Bears than it does to the Bulldogs.
“If you look across the board at what the Big 12 has been doing with bowl games, it does not look good for our conference,” he said. “We plan to be the backbone for our conference and get the job done, get the big win.”
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Les East is a nationally renowned freelance journalist. The New Orleans area native’s blog on SportsNOLA.com was named “Best Sports Blog” in 2016 by the Press Club of New Orleans. For 2013 he was named top sports columnist in the United States by the Society of Professional Journalists. He has since become a valued contributor for CCS. The Jesuit High…