There were a lot of Georgia doubters this offseason. There are fewer today.
Georgia opened its 2022 season with a 49-3 dismantling of the Oregon Ducks in Atlanta. Yes, the Dawgs proved they’re still those dudes you saw dominating college football last year keeping opponents out of the end zone and doubling point spreads. This comes as no surprise to any of the Georgia faithful. We know Kirby Smart is one of the best coaches in college football, with a commensurate staff by his side. More importantly, we know how well he’s recruited and how good those Dawgs on the field are, even if you haven’t learned all their names yet.
To be fair, “doubt” is a relative term. No one thought we would struggle week-in-week-out and be happy to go bowling in December. (If they did, I question their mental faculties.) But there were those who thought the defending national champions would take a step backward, and that the idea of repeating as champ was pure fantasy.
What people outside the Georgia football sphere failed to do this offseason was give Smart and Georgia the benefit of the doubt. There were legitimate questions about the massive amount of talent Georgia lost through both the NFL Draft and transfer portal following the title win. But I saw enough from Smart in his first six seasons as head coach to believe he had answers.
The biggest, and most fair, question before the season was how Georgia’s defense would recover after losing most of its stars to the NFL. Fifteen Dawgs were selected in the 2022 NFL Draft, a modern record. Nine of those 15 came from the Georgia defense, and five of those nine were selected in the first round, another record for most players from a single school taken in the first round. So, yes, there was a fair expectation that the Georgia defense would be worse.
Once again, though, “worse” is relative. Almost every college defense that steps on a field will be worse than the 2021 UGA defense, one of the best in the history of the sport. The 2022 defense can, and likely will, be worse and still be one of the best in college football this season.
What should have signaled how good the Georgia defense would be this year was Smart’s activity in the transfer portal, or lack thereof. The loosening of transfer restrictions and massive amounts of NIL money being thrown around led to more player movement than we’ve ever seen. If a coach needed to fill a hole or improve at a position, he would hit the portal and bring in a transfer. But Smart didn’t take a single player. That means he looked at his roster and saw no holes to fill or improvements to be made over the dudes he recruited to Athens.
Case in point: safety. Lewis Cine was drafted by the Minnesota Vikings, leaving the Dawgs with only Chris Smith, walk-on Dan Jackson, and a few true freshman safeties. A lot of folks, including me, thought he should go out and grab someone from the portal to shore up the secondary. But Smart knew he had Malaki Starks from right up the road in Jefferson waiting in the wings.
In his first game as a Bulldog, Starks snagged an eye-popping interception that put all the momentum in favor of Georgia on Oregon’s second drive. He finished the game with a team-high in both total (eight) and solo (five) tackles. Now he’s on a similar path to Cine: three years in college, then a high pick in the NFL Draft.
The much less legitimate question was whether Stetson Bennett could be entrusted with the offense. Leaving aside the fact he’s already won us a national championship, the circumstances of this season are much more conducive to offensive success. Namely, he spent the entire offseason as the presumptive starter. Georgia reaped the benefits of that, as Bennett went 25-of-31 for 368 yards and two touchdowns through the air, plus a rushing touchdown.
Just as important as Bennett’s continuity was offensive coordinator Todd Monken. Monken’s attempts to install his offense in his first season were marred by COVID-19. In his second season, musical chairs between JT Daniels and Bennett at quarterback hindered him. But now he’s had a full offseason with one dude as his QB1, and we’re seeing the wide-open offense Smart hired Monken to run after we were shellacked by that legendary LSU offense in 2019.
Maybe the doubt folks had in Georgia was never about Georgia. Maybe it was wishful thinking that there was hope for another team in the SEC East. Any rival fan who thought the Dawgs were going to take a step back should now realize that step is relative. It’ll be every bit as hard to beat Georgia this year as it was last year.
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