The winner of tonight’s College Football Playoff National Championship in Indianapolis will receive a nice trophy and a confetti shower, not to mention an invaluable boost in recruiting juice, donor dollars, name-image-likeness sponsorships, and all the adulation our tarnished meritocracy of a country can give to No. 1.
And the loser?
Well, if the University of Alabama loses, the Crimson Tide will have the consolation of having won six of those nice trophies in the past 12 years — and a reputation for football supremacy that can easily survive the occasional slip at the very pinnacle of the sport.
But if it’s my University of Georgia Bulldogs who lose to Bama for the eighth consecutive time, most of their fans will be inconsolable.
That won’t be because of the alleged “curse” afflicting Georgia when it faces Nick Saban’s team, though a second loss to the Dawgs’ Southeastern Conference nemesis in a national title game (the first was four years ago) would add to the pain.
No, the real problem is that since the playoff system arrived in 2014, college football has become a winner-take-all sport in which the closer a program gets to the top, the more near greatness has become a bitterly empty accomplishment. And it’s very likely to get worse when, in the next few years, the playoff field expands from four teams to 12 or 16 or — who knows? — maybe 24 or 32 frantic programs fighting for the only championship that matters.
And the one thing the Georgia Bulldogs haven’t been good at is winning that elusive title — the “natty,” as college-football fans call it.
I should know. I’ve been a fan of the Dawgs since September 18, 1965, when I watched Georgia beat Alabama — then as now the dominant team in the SEC, at the time coached by the godlike Bear Bryant instead of the godlike Saban — on a TV in the appliance showroom of the Goodyear store my father managed in LaGrange, Georgia. The team was usually good, sometimes very good, but never the Best. Fortunately, old-school Bulldog fans like me, tutored by longtime poor-mouthing coach Vince Dooley and the intensely pessimistic radio play-by-play man Larry Munson, were satisfied with a tradition of excellence, if not dominance. And when Georgia finally won a national title at the end of a wild 1980 season, with current U.S. Senate candidate Herschel Walker having a transcendent year, it was a blessing, not the breaking of a curse; an unexpected joy, not a summit reached after an endless purgatorial climb.
When the Dawgs had another shot at the natty two years later and lost by four points to Penn State in the Sugar Bowl, fans were disappointed, not anguished. But when years without a championship turned into decades, the year 1980 turned from a signpost of glory to a taunt by Georgia’s rivals, repeated with juvenile glee on message boards and comment threads.
Since then, you see, Alabama has won seven national titles; Miami has won four; Clemson, Florida, Florida State, and LSU have won three; Auburn has won two; and Tennessee and Georgia Tech — Georgia Tech! the annoying, nerdy little brother in Peach State football — have won national championships as well. Southern campuses are littered with more recent natties.
And now Georgia is one game away from ending the taunts and, with them, the painful debates as to how many solid, outstanding, ostensibly satisfying seasons its fans would trade for just one natty. It’s a debate with which longtime residents of the state are very familiar after the Atlanta Braves won an incredible 14 consecutive division titles from 1991 to 2005 but could bring home only one World Series championship.
Well, the Braves won another World Series in 2021, which old-timey Bulldog fans saw as a good omen. And without question, the Dawgs had a great 2021 season, with arguably their most talented roster ever. But if they fall short tonight, with a second loss to Alabama in just over a month, it will feel less like a near miss at glory and more like the plight of Sisyphus, watching the rock roll down the hill yet again.
Personally, I have struggled against the winner-take-all psychology at Georgia and elsewhere. Before this season, I told my colleague Will Leitch that I’d be fine if Georgia clinched an SEC East division title and would be overjoyed at a spot in the playoffs. I wouldn’t be like those spoiled and impatient alumni at so many other schools eager to fire the coach and pay obscene salaries to new saviors who were sure to make their program No. 1 year after year, world without end.
But now I’m almost as bad as those fellow Dawg fans with a snail’s-eye view who cannot tolerate another hit-and-miss at the natty. But it’s only because I want the 1980 taunts to stop, and to be able once again to enjoy good football, great football, nearly perfect football. I long for the days when a so-so team upsetting a rival was as satisfying as the routine demolition of lesser powers, when you could enjoy a halftime lead without the gnawing fear that it would erode and vanish, ruining that perfect season.
I fervently hope Georgia wins it all tonight so the Bulldog Nation can enjoy not winning it all in the future. Maybe we can’t handle another 41-year drought, but at least one off-season free of agony and second-guessing would be as welcome as confetti and trophies.