ATLANTA — It was close. It was a matter of seconds. Three, toto be exact.
The eighth-ranked University of Cincinnati football team came three seconds from capturing the biggest victory in program history Friday in the Peach Bowl.
Instead, Georgia kicker Jack Podlesny tied a Peach Bowl record by nailing a 53-yard field goal with three seconds to play and giving the No. 9 (College Football Playoff ranking) Bulldogs a 22-21 lead on the No. 9 Bearcats.
The game ended as American Athletic Conference Offensive Player of the Year Desmond Ridder was sacked in the end zone for a safety, resulting in the final score of 24-21.
Throughout 2020 Cincinnati (9-1) showed it was college football's best Group of Five team. Its defense was among the top ranked in the FBS, and Ridder was one of the most productive quarterbacks in the nation. But to the masses, the Bearcats were still just a Group of Five team.
Power Five Georgia (8-2), which is three years removed from playing for a national championship inside the same stadium (Mercedes-Benz Stadium) as Friday's Peach Bowl, is one of the "blue blood" programs, Cincinnati coach Luke Fickell said.
While Fickell's Bearcats didn't earn enough respect from the College Football Playoff selection committee to receive a spot in the four-team playoff, they did earn the respect of the Southeastern Conference's Bulldogs.
"I'd like to start by saying the Cincinnati team had an absolute incredible effort, toughness," Georgia coach Kirby Smart said. "The way they played us defensively, I have a lot of respect for Luke Fickell and his team. The quarterback they have is a talented man. For people to try to take shots at their conference, their level of play, they got a really, really good quality football team, a lot of seniors on that team."
Two of those seniors, first-team All-AAC running back Gerrid Doaks (ankle) and first-team All-AAC and Associated Press second-team All-American safety James Wiggins (calf), were unable to suit up on Friday. Their absences were felt, but the Bearcats still took a 21-10 lead into the fourth quarter.
Friday's Peach Bowl was Georgia’s fourth consecutive New Year’s Six bowl appearance. The Bulldogs have had 25 (15-10) total. Friday was only the third for Cincinnati.
The Bearcats fell to 0-3 all time in New Year's Six bowl games. They lost in back-to-back trips to the Orange Bowl (Virginia Tech) and Sugar Bowl (Florida) in 2008 and 2009. The Bearcats also fell to 1-2 all-time against SEC teams in bowl games.
Despite the disparity in big stage appearances between the two programs, Cincinnati made Georgia earn its victory on Friday. The Bearcats held the Bulldogs to only 45 rushing yards and to a 1-of-11 conversion rate on third down.
"My hat is off to Cincinnati," Smart said. "They did a really good job of defensively controlling our run game, and offensively keeping us off balance enough with their quarterback run game, which we knew he was a good athlete, a good runner. Probably didn't give him enough credit."
Prior to the game, Ridder, who has already earned his degree, said it was “too soon” to discuss what he’ll do after the season. His options are to return next season to do what this Cincinnati team couldn't, or declare for the 2021 NFL Draft.
Despite a career-best season for Ridder, a perfect regular season for the Bearcats, and another highly ranked recruiting class coming in for Fickell, the Group of Five obstacle will remain in UC's way until its able to make the leap to one of the Power Five conferences.
"We don't use that word, that P (Power Five), whatever that is," Fickell said. "They (his players) know no difference. They know what the SEC is; it's a really, really good conference with really, really good teams and great players. But we don't look at anybody any different. Obviously, there's conferences that are historic and great. Georgia, it doesn't matter what conference they were in. It doesn't matter what P was in front or after their name. That's a great football team and we loved the challenge."