MIAMI — This was a debacle, and Kirby Smart knew it. He was the one who benefitted from it. His Georgia team got to finish its season feeling very good about itself, sending the message that if its one bad game had been forgiven, it very likely would have won a third consecutive national championship.
But that wasn’t the point. That wasn’t the main takeaway from this game, a 63-3 Georgia rout of a decimated Florida State that was an embarrassment for college football.
“People need to see what happened tonight and they need to fix this. It needs to be fixed,” Smart said.
Smart doesn’t often get on a soapbox and usually tries to avoid making headlines. This was uncharacteristic. But it was clear that as happy as he was about how his team played, he also felt pity for what Florida State coach Mike Norvell and his remaining players had to endure. The Seminoles were down more than two dozen players who finished the season with the team, including six starters who opted out to prepare for the 2024 NFL Draft.
Kirby Smart unprompted brought up the Florida State opt-outs:
“People need to see what happened tonight, and they need to fix it. … It’s really unfortunate for the guys on that sideline who had to play in that game when they didn’t have their full arsenal.”
— Seth Emerson (@SethWEmerson) December 31, 2023
Georgia, meanwhile, was not down any non-injured players. Much of the difference can be attributed to Georgia coming off of a loss. Much of it is a credit to Georgia’s team culture.
Some of it will be fixed next year by the expansion of the College Football Playoff. Florida State would have been a much better team if this were a Playoff game. But because this wasn’t, it ended up becoming a joke of a game, two teams that no longer belonged on the same field.
“It’s very unfortunate that they, who have a good football team and a good football program, are in the position they’re in,” Smart said. “Everybody can say it’s their fault and it’s not our problem. They can say we had our guys and they didn’t have their guys. I can listen to all that. But college football has to decide what they want.
“I know things are changing, and some things are going to change next year. You know what, there’s going to still be bowl games outside of those. People have gotta decide what they want and what they want to get out of it. Because it’s really unfortunate for those kids on that sideline that had to play in that game that didn’t have their full arsenal. And it affected the game, 100 percent.”
It affected the game in ways that shouldn’t happen in a storied bowl game. But that’s where the sport is now.
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There was Ladd McConkey, after taking a lateral for a trick pass, deciding to tuck and run and going through the hapless Seminoles for a 27-yard touchdown.
There was the Georgia defensive line being chop-blocked and Mykel Williams still bursting through for the sack-strip-fumble. That was one of two times Georgia got to the quarterback despite a penalty on Florida State.
Midway through the second quarter, the referee announced Florida State had called a “team-out.” A slip of the tongue. But accurate.
Georgia, meanwhile, was close to its full self. It had six contributors not suit up: Brock Bowers, Amarius Mims, Smael Mondon, Rara Thomas, Julian Humphrey and Christen Miller. All but Miller were known to be dealing with injuries, and Miller is a redshirt freshman who has been at practice, so he may have been a late injury.
This was also a Georgia team that held together because of wounded pride, after the loss to Alabama and subsequent drop from the four-team Playoff field.
“We knew we were one of the four best teams in college football,” senior nose tackle Zion Logue said. “We tripped at the finish line in the SEC Championship. But we came out and showed today that we’re still the University of Georgia and we’re going to dominate anytime we step on the field.”
“It’s just a standard. We always want to win,” sophomore cornerback Daylen Everette said. “That’s really all you can say.”
In the locker room afterward, music blared. Players took photographs together: Mondon with the two young linebackers (C.J. Allen and Raylen Wilson) who started in his place. Carson Beck with McConkey, perhaps a final moment if the latter turns pro.
You don’t sense much anger or regret about it. Having that last two rings to look back on is part of it. Players used to winning national championships were fine wearing hats that said CHAMPS, with Orange Bowl in smaller lettering.
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Smart finished his news conference by telling a story about one of the players sitting next to him — cornerback Kamari Lassiter, a junior who got a first- or second-round grade from the NFL.
“Kamari, you should come out for the draft,” Smart said he told Lassiter. “You’re one of the top corners in the draft, you’ve gotta make that decision.”
And there was a second decision to be made: Whether to play in the Orange Bowl. If Lassiter opted out, Smart was fine with that.
“I don’t know if you’ve got a lot to prove in this bowl game, Kamari,” Smart said he told him. “But I do know who you are. And I do know how you practice, and I do know how you lead. And I’m not going to be disappointed in anything you decide.”
A few days later, Lassiter and his mother met with Smart, and the decision was essentially made to sit out the game. But a couple of days later Lassiter called Smart.
“Coach, I can’t do it,” he said, according to Smart. “Sitting out over there coaching. I can’t do it. I wanna be out there playing with my guys.”
Lassiter started on Saturday and played almost the entire first half. He sat most of the second half, as did many of the starters. Georgia got an early look at players who could get bigger roles next year, like new No. 2 quarterback Gunner Stockton, who then gave way to the walk-ons. Jackson Muschamp went in and ran 14 yards for a first down, as his father, Georgia co-defensive coordinator Will Muschamp, beamed and laughed.
A feel-good moment. There were a lot of those for Georgia, which deserves plenty of credit for how it played and how many players it had.
But for Florida State, and college football in general, this was ridiculous. Maybe it will be fixed naturally next year. Maybe the non-Playoff bowls need to be allowed to pay players so they don’t opt out. Or maybe nobody will care about the other bowls as long as they draw good television numbers. (Which they do.) And maybe Georgia waxing someone 63-3 isn’t a problem when last year it won 65-7 against TCU in the national championship.
The expanded Playoff is going to be great. It’s going to mean more meaningful football games in December and more fan bases engaged down the stretch and in more parts of the country. It’s good for the sport.
What we saw on Saturday was not.
(Photo: Jeffrey Vest / Icon Sportswire via Getty)