ATLANTA — Watching Alabama receiver DeVonta Smith haul in a perfect spiral, with no defenders within touching distance, not only brought the 2018 College Football Playoff to a wild conclusion, it also took Georgia fans back to a very dark place.
There they were, dredged up like demons from a long slumber, as Bulldogs fans saw yet another golden opportunity slip achingly through their beloved teams' fingers in a 26-23 overtime loss.
And as the previously roaring crowd of red and black faithful turned en mass to exit Mercedes-Benz, it would be easy and tempting to shake the head, bite the lip and believe that, perhaps, Georgia's long journey through the national championship desert will never come to an end.
The realities of the landscape in Athens say otherwise, however.
"The standard's been set by these young men right here," second-year Georgia football coach Kirby Smart said postgame. "I think everybody can see that Georgia's going to be a force to be reckoned with. I'm very proud of this team and this university, and we're not going anywhere."
The Bulldogs proved all campaign that they have turned a proverbial corner in Athens, dominating almost everyone in the regular season, avenging their sole loss convincingly in the Southeastern Conference title match, dumping Oklahoma in the Rose Bowl and then coming within a few minutes of unseating favored Alabama in the title game.
To be sure this was a special team, full of veteran talent that is set to graduate or leave the confines of collegiate football for NFL riches -- Nick Chubb, Sony Michel, Lorenzo Carter, Roquan Smith to name just a few -- but there is also something brewing with the younger players in Athens, as evidenced by the gritty play of quarterback Jake Fromm on Monday, as well as receivers Riley Ridley and Mecole Hardman (both sophomores that impressed), as well as freshman running back DeAndre Swift, who had few moments on Monday but is an undoubted talent.
Then there's that No. 1-ranked recruiting class set to enroll in Athens.
So while there will be an undoubted absence felt when sping practice begins in a few months' time, those players still on the roster will possess plenty with which to continue the work that provided so many thrills this season. And they'll have the added drive of coming up three points short in a national title game -- as well as a coach that will not absorb the loss quietly.
"We try to set the standard high so the younger guys know where to take it from here. We fell short today, and I think guys that's coming back understand what it's going to take plus more to get back here," said senior running back Sony Michel, whose first quarter tight-rope impersonation helped Georgia to grab the early momentum, on a long third-down run.
So while Monday may hurt for Georgia fans -- and, boy, does it ever hurt -- there is no reason to believe this is the closing of a book. More than likely it is the beginning of a new chapter.
"I know this team would have never stopped believing. Even when they went out to kick the field goal to win the game, we knew that something was going to happen in our favor, and they ended up missing it," senior running back Nick Chubb said. "And we had our chance to win the game, but we just didn't get it done. We never stopped believing."
And while the specter of so many recent gut-punches hang in the air -- 2012's SEC title game and the like -- Georgia fans may console themselves with the hope that this latest is a stumbling block, rather than a brick wall.