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Post Georgia 63 – FSU 3: Score one for the culture

Tuesday January 2, 2024

To begin with: Saturday’s result wasn’t a referendum on the merits of FSU – or Georgia for that matter – for the College Football Playoff. Those cases were made over a season of 13 games and, for reasons debated elsewhere, were found lacking. All the Orange Bowl represented was a matchup of two teams at the end of December very different from what they were at the beginning of December. It was about how each team dealt with and adjusted to those differences.

Also: I struggle to see transfers and opt-outs as some sort of moral failing. I can’t imagine making weighty decisions at that age balancing preparation for the NFL Draft and the life-changing amounts involved with feelings of obligation and loyalty to my teammates. I also agree that the state of things isn’t a good look for the sport. Everyone has their pet solutions, but when it comes to bowl games and opt-outs the answer might simply be financial. Bowls pay out a good chunk of money, and those payouts often go into the pool of money distributed by the conferences. If it’s important to continue the bowl system outside of the playoff and to have rosters be as complete as possible, use the incentive that seems to drive every other decision in college athletics.

Finally: Georgia needn’t think twice about the lopsided outcome of the game. You play the team put in front of you, and how you choose to approach that challenge is up to you. We saw how Georgia’s players chose to put the disappointing Alabama loss behind them and regroup to end the season on a better note. In doing so they made a statement about the culture of the Georgia program.

What do we mean by a victory for the program’s culture? It’s easy to take that as a condescending results-oriented coping mechanism of a fan base full of itself. Take it instead as an appreciation, even in a season that fell short of the ultimate goal, of Kirby Smart’s vision for the program summed up in the summer of 2022: “we built a program to be sustained.” What does that look like?

Recruiting and roster management: The focus was on FSU’s high-profile opt-outs, but Kirby Smart had some personnel issues of his own. Between transfers and injuries Georgia was without well over 20 scholarship players. The biggest difference in the game was Georgia’s mature and fruitful recruiting operation versus Florida State’s emerging but fledgling operation. That’s not a knock on Mike Norvell – he’s rebuilding his program from a very low point just a few years ago. He’s beginning to have some success: the 12th-ranked recruiting class was FSU’s best result in years. But the four classes that proceeded it were ranked 26th, 20th, 27th, and 20th. That’s not horrible, and it’s certainly enough to outclass most ACC programs. But it’s not the profile of an elite CFP contender. FSU has had to supplement its roster with productive and impactful transfers: Jordan Travis, Keon Coleman, Jared Verse, and Jaheim Bell among others were home run additions who transformed the program. Norvell’s effective use of transfers allowed him to flip the Seminoles from 3-6 in 2020 and 5-7 in 2021 to 10-3 in 2022 and 13-1 this year.

Removing the veneer of the FSU transfers revealed a thin roster that wasn’t able to match up with Georgia’s reserves, let alone Georgia’s starters. Building quality depth is hard, hard work and something that comes over time with sustained effort in recruiting. There are no shortcuts. Even elite teams have their depth tested at the margins when facing their peers in the postseason: the slightest drop-off or inexperience at receiver or tackle or linebacker can make the difference in a competitive game. But these weren’t two similarly built teams. Georgia has had top five recruiting classes since 2017. Certainly that talent has been augmented with a handful of transfers, but Georgia’s broad foundation was built on Signing Day after Signing Day.

We saw that difference pay off repeatedly in the Orange Bowl. Brock Bowers sat out as expected. Oscar Delp had perhaps his finest game of the season, and Lawson Luckie and Pearce Spurlin played often and well. Dillon Bell wasn’t buried on the depth chart, but the absence of Rara Thomas and limited action for Ladd McConkey gave Bell an opportunity to step up into a larger role, and he made the most of it. Anthony Evans became more than just the guy with the nice punt return against Alabama. Georgia was without the inside linebackers that began the season, but CJ Allen continued his development into the next Georgia ILB standout. Daniel Harris had one foot in the transfer portal but did his job at cornerback. Kendall Milton was dominant early and then handed things over to Roderick Robinson. Georgia went with a familiar offensive line combination to start the game without Mims, but we soon saw Freeling and Fairchild. Of course Georgia’s starters set the stage and big plays by Beck, McConkey, Milton, Edwards, and the defense put the game out of reach. It didn’t take long though for Georgia’s massive depth advantage to assert itself. The reserves didn’t just hold ground; they continued the onslaught. While Stockton capably led the offense, Georgia’s young defensive backups held FSU to 24 second half yards.

Again, this isn’t a criticism of how Norvell built his program; FSU at full strength had the talent to win its first 13 games and finish out an undefeated regular season without its starting quarterback. He set his team up well to accomplish its goals, and he showed the year-over-year progress he needed to show. The next challenge for FSU is continuing to strike gold in the transfer portal while gradually building that team-wide depth through higher-rated signing classes. It’s not yet a program built to be sustained. On the other hand, the performance of Georgia’s reserves suggests that Georgia’s talent is holding up as another top-rated signing class heads to Athens.

Playing the long game: Even one-year transfers can assimilate into a program and even become leaders. Where would the 2016 season have been without Maurice Smith or the 2019 season without Lawrence Cager? There are potential downsides though to relying on multiple transfers. Jordan Travis was technically a transfer but played all but one of his six seasons at FSU. There was no questioning his leadership or the team’s identity with him at the helm. Other shorter-term transfers might not have developed the bond and sense of team that you see from a group that spent years building and reinforcing a program’s identity.

Kirby Smart uses the word “connection” as one of his core principles. The opportunity to send Georgia’s senior class out with 50 wins was identified early in bowl preparations, and the team seemed to rally around that significant milestone. They felt that those who had invested in turning the program into a multi-year champion deserved their teammates’ best effort. “Just playing for that will give us a purpose to play for, and we definitely have a spark,” said freshman offensive tackle Earnest Greene III. That connection from the freshmen on up to the seniors is what Smart is after and shows how the program’s culture is passed to the next group of leaders.

Consistency: It was mentioned during the broadcast that Georgia prepared for this game in the same way as the Ohio State playoff semifinal a year ago. “We’re in the same routine. We’ve tried to make it the same sense of urgency,” explained Smart during December. That shouldn’t be a surprise. We should know after 7 seasons that Smart doesn’t change his approach much from opponent to opponent. “We’re going to go up there, meet, do the same thing we were doing if we were playing in the Playoff. It’s a routine for us.” It was the same for the players. “We’re approaching it the same way as any other week,” Tykee Smith said.

That’s easier said than done; no coach or player is going to admit to giving a bowl game less than their full attention. When a program wins seven straight bowl and CFP games you listen a bit more closely about its preparation and approach to the postseason. The unpleasant memory of the 2019 Sugar Bowl loss stuck with Smart, and since then Georgia has ended the season with wins whether there was a title at stake or not.

Bowl preparation is also the first opportunity the staff has with the incoming class, and it’s also the first opportunity to imprint the culture on the next wave of players. With the majority of freshmen now enrolling early, their first exposure to the program in December sets the standard of what’s expected over the next nine months as they prepare to contribute to Georgia’s sustained success. Inconsistencies in bowl preparation wouldn’t just send the wrong message to the newcomers and interrupt the connection between newcomers and returning players; it would also require valuable time in spring practice to reestablish standards and expectations.

Georgia’s game-to-game consistency in preparation doesn’t guarantee results – the same process that led to a blowout of FSU had the Dawgs shut out of the playoffs after losing to Alabama. It is though a key contributor to maintaining the level of talent and the connection from year to year which allows Georgia to sustain its high level of success and remain in contention over the long term.

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