The thought of October last year made everyone in the state of Georgia sick.
It wasn’t enough that on this very weekend 12 months ago the Braves crashed and burned in the inaugural Wild Card round of the playoffs, but 24 hours later the University of Georgia’s fifth-ranked Bulldogs were boat raced 35-7 in a highly anticipated match up against the South Carolina Gamecocks.
Just like that the seasons of the two most popular teams in the state had squandered opportunities to make a mark nationally (although the Bulldogs would get another shot later that season against Alabama in the SEC championship game). Mark Richt, head coach of those Bulldogs, put it best: “First of all, the bad news is we took a whipping. The good news is we all took it together. It was a team loss,”
For some of us it felt like a lot more. It felt like a punch to the gut. I get the old adage that no one takes losses harder than those who played. believe me, I played sports my whole life. But fans have it rough in those parts, no more so than the day after when the “I told you so” media types at larger outlets start the spin cycle dismissing the accomplishments of the teams that weren’t as bad as they were that particular day.
So the teams press forward and the fans put it behind them. Throwing out cliches and slogans and getting it all together to start a new run. Because in the cycle of sports that is what happens: you start all over. The Braves entered Spring Training a foregone conclusion to be back in “that game” as it is now known in baseball circles (including by yours truly). The Bulldogs, who lost nine defensive starters after last season (seven to the NFL) were considered a national title favorite for no other reason than their coach who “couldn’t get it done” and a quarterback of the same moniker.
What they did was buck national perception.
Georgia went out and, after an opening loss to eighth ranked Clemson, beat South Carolina and LSU who were both ranked in the top-10. While they were getting that done, the Braves were wrapping up their first National League East title in since 2005 and vying for the best record and home-field in the National League. All of that culminated into this past weekend and an opportunity for both teams to right some of the ills from the last 12 months.
The Braves were down a game to the Dodgers, dropping it at home in front of a raucous Turner Field crowd. They could ill-afford to go to Los Angeles down 2-0. They had already been schooled by Clayton Kershaw (12 K’s game one) and were staring down the Dodgers “1-B” in Greinke. Meanwhile in Knoxville, the Bulldogs were preparing to take on the unranked-but-motivated Volunteers of Tennessee. They came in ranked sixth in the country, their offense as prolific as advertised, but without their star tailback (Gurley) and in a hostile SEC environment.
This had all the makings of another bad weekend. But both teams proved resilient.
The Braves, behind a strong effort from Mike Minor, beat the Dodgers and notched the series at 1-1. It was a statement to the Dodgers and the country that these Braves were going to fight in this series and not be run out of the playoffs without making something happen.
Things were a little trickier for the Bulldogs.
I think of all the growth I’ve seen from a player(s) the leap Aaron Murray has taken this year is incredible. Already without Todd Gurley, the Bulldogs also saw injuries to Michael Bennett, Keith Marshall, Justin Scott-Wesley, and for good measure their punter. But Murray and the Dawgs rallied, and ended up with one of the more improbable victories I’ve ever seen. And it started here:
That run lamented the arrival of a quarterback who has gone through his growing pains and looks prime to lead.
So here we are the Monday after. The Bulldogs are ranked seventh in the country and head home for a test against number 25 Missouri. Those Braves? They still play as well, down 2-1 to the Dodgers and hoping to scratch one out against that man again, Clayton Kershaw. Whatever the outcome, we saw the growth of these teams and were witness to one of the best weekends in Georgia sports we’ve had in a while.
My how things change.