Deandre Baker sat in front of an empty locker, his t-shirt reading “D. Baker,” as he answered quick-fire questions from the media scrum.
His then-fourth-ranked Bulldogs (now No. 5) had just surrendered a two-score lead to No. 1 Alabama in the SEC Championship in front of more than 70,000 spectators at Atlanta’s Mercedes-Benz Stadium. The mood inside the Bulldogs locker room was expectantly somber.
The first question Baker faced, right out of the gate, cut right to the chase.
“How do you guys bounce back?” a reporter asked the senior defensive back. An understandable question, given the team found out the next day it will face No. 15 Texas in the Allstate Sugar Bowl (8:45 p.m., ESPN). Not the in College Football Playoff, like they’d originally hoped.
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“We just get in the film room and go watch the film,” Baker said. “Fix the areas we can improve, and we go from there.”
The Bulldogs’ first Sugar Bowl appearance since 2008 won’t come against a WAC opponent (Hawaii) like it did last time. The Longhorns boast wins over playoff-bound Oklahoma (although they did lose the rematch in the Big 12 Championship), TCU and Iowa State, and receiver Lil’Jordan Humphrey ranks 17th nationally in receiving yards.
So, the Longhorns certainly aren’t a pushover, and their head coach has quite a record as an underdog.
Tom Herman gained attention at Houston, his previous stop, with upset wins over Power Five foes Louisville in 2016, a team that still had Lamar Jackson, and Florida State in the 2015 Peach Bowl. And he’s 12-1-1 against the spread dating back to his Houston days.
“Well, I think the first thing to do is turn the tape on of the Texas football team,” Bulldogs coach Kirby Smart said on the Sugar Bowl teleconference on December 2. “You find out right away, first of all, they’re well coached. … As far as our players and our team, these kids recover faster than you think they do.”
While the Sugar Bowl may not bring the accolades of a College Football Playoff berth, it is still a New Year’s Six game and, 2017’s playoff run aside, will serve as the program’s highest-ranking bowl appearance since Kirby Smart took over in 2016.
“Whatever game we’ve got next, I’m ready to play no matter what,” said Bulldogs defensive back Richard LeCounte, who grabbed an interception on Alabama’s opening drive back on Dec. 1. “Whether we’re in (the playoff) or not.”
This won’t be the first time Smart has coached a game in New Orleans, either.
In 2009, Alabama lost to Tim Tebow-led Florida in the conference championship, then proceeded to lose to Utah in the Sugar Bowl. Smart was the defensive coordinator in Tuscaloosa then.
Five years later, the Crimson Tide lost to Auburn in their regular-season finale, then were bested by Oklahoma in Mercedes-Benz Superdome.
So, Smart is certainly not unfamiliar with traveling to New Orleans after a massive letdown. It’ll be on him, then, to prepare the youngest team in the SEC for a four-loss Texas team.
“These guys aren’t quite as experienced at that kind of bowl environment (a non-playoff bowl) as maybe those Alabama teams that didn’t play as well as we probably should have,” Smart said. “It’s definitely a challenge, but that’s a challenge you’re presented. … We’re looking at this as an opportunity to spring forward into the next year.”