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The Dawgs Are in the Hunt for Another National Championship

Play it again, Kirby. Credit: Tony Walsh/UGA Athletic Association

Many memories from the national championship game last year will stick with me forever: Jalen Carter’s blocked field goal. AD Mitchell’s go-ahead touchdown. Kelee Ringo’s interception, of course. Counting down the seconds to the final whistle, then hugging every stranger wearing red and black within reach.

But one moment that’s come back to my mind in recent weeks happened right after the game, as we walked through that bitter cold Indianapolis night. “At least it won’t be this cold in Los Angeles next year,” said one Alabama fan to another, referring to the site of this year’s College Football Playoff National Championship Game.

I remember thinking, that sounds about right. The Tide had Bryce Young and Will Anderson for another season, while the Dawgs were about to lose the core of the team—15 players, to be precise—to the NFL. Alabama was better positioned than Georgia to make a run in 2022, I thought. So did almost everyone else.

Turns out both I and the random Alabama fan in a parking lot in Indianapolis were dead wrong. Alabama has suffered two losses and won’t even make it to Atlanta out of the SEC West. The Dawgs, meanwhile, are 10-0 and secured a second consecutive SEC East crown with a 45-19 win over Mississippi State in Starkville.

None of this was meant as a slight against Alabama—though you should feel free to take it that way—but rather an illustration of how relatively unexpected Georgia’s run this season has been. It’s not the fact that Georgia is 10-0 or won the SEC East that’s surprising. It’s that Georgia looks like the best team in the country, and the Alabama boogeyman will be sitting at home for both the SEC Championship Game and the College Football Playoffs. The Dawgs will play a two-loss LSU under a new head coach, Brian Kelly, in Atlanta. And leaving the SEC Championship Game aside completely, Georgia only needs to beat Kentucky in Lexington and Georgia Tech in Athens to finish 12-0 in the regular season and earn a spot in the playoff field regardless of what happens against LSU.

That’s a testament to what Kirby Smart has built. This is the fifth time Smart has won the East in his seven seasons. He’s also won 10 games in five of his seven seasons. The only exceptions were his first season and the COVID-shortened 2020 season. We are in the Golden Age of Georgia football; long may it continue.

I’m not prepared to say we’ve usurped Alabama as the top program in college football. Rumors of Nick Saban’s demise have been greatly exaggerated before. But there’s no denying the results. We won the title last year, and have arguably the best shot of any team left in contention to win it again. So while this season may have begun as a rebuilding year, that ain’t what it is anymore. We’re on the hunt for another title.

As great a job as he did last year, this year has the chance to be Smart’s greatest achievement yet. It’s difficult to overstate just how much sheer talent and experience was lost from last season’s team, as well as the leadership from players like Nakobe Dean, Jamaree Salyer and Jordan Davis. There was a brain drain on the coaching staff, as well, with Dan Lanning moving to the big chair at Oregon, Cortez Hankton heading home to LSU and Matt Luke retiring to spend more time with his family.

Despite all that, Georgia has a rare opportunity. Only a handful of programs have won consecutive consensus national championships. Alabama did it last in 2011 and 2012, when Smart was a defensive coordinator under Saban. Before that, you have to go back to the legendary Nebraska teams in 1994 and 1995.

So when you talk about back-to-back title-winners, you’re talking about dynasties, the greatest teams and the best programs in the history of the sport. If the Dawgs do pull this off—still a big “if” with five games to go—we won’t need to have any conversations about whether Georgia’s usurped Alabama as the top program in the country, because it’ll be a stone-cold fact.