Sports

Georgia’s National Title Made an Old Strategy Look New Again

The Dawgs won it all in a way that no team has been able to in years.

Davis holds the trophy skyward and screams as his teammate smiles and celebrates next to him in championship T-shirt and cap, confetti raining down on them both
Jordan Davis of Georgia with the national championship trophy after the Bulldogs defeated Alabama 33–18 in the 2022 title game at Lucas Oil Stadium on Monday, in Indianapolis. Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

It wouldn’t be hard to look at the Georgia Bulldogs and see a boring national champion that followed a well-worn and increasingly unexciting road. Ahead of the 2016 season, the Dawgs hired Kirby Smart as head coach. Smart was the latest in a long line of Nick Saban assistants to be entrusted with the keys to his own program, hoping to eventually beat the Alabama boss at his own game. That game is recruiting as much as it’s actual football, and the Dawgs spent the next half-decade building a war machine that would hopefully let them compete with the Tide. Smart also shared Saban’s old affinity for lockdown defense and plodding, efficient, but not necessarily prolific offense, preferring the comfort of a 21–3 win to a high-flying shootout.

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The plan had worked, to a point. As far as recruiting rankings go—and those rankings tend to be highly predictive of national title contenders—Georgia basically matched Alabama this season as the most talented team in college football. It just didn’t materialize on the field for a while, as Smart started his Athens tenure with four losses in four tries against Saban. Two came in the SEC Championship, the most recent just five weeks ago. Another came in 2018’s national title game, when Smart’s team blew a late lead and lost cripplingly in overtime.

The last phase of the plan, actually beating Alabama, arrived on Monday night. After the teams traded field goals and turnovers for most of their national championship game in Indianapolis, Georgia took over in the middle and later portions of the fourth quarter and won, 33–18.

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The Dawgs are not a pioneering champ from a geographic perspective. They are just the latest champion to hail from the SEC, which has won all but four titles since Vince Young’s Texas won it in 2005. They are also not that interesting from a philosophical standpoint, as the strategy of first dominating in recruiting and then winning with speed and size is as old as the sport itself. But the Dawgs blazed their own trail in a couple of critical ways just the same. They went against the grain of their recent national champion predecessors both in how they constructed their identity as a team and whom they entrusted to lead the way. And in the end, it worked perfectly, netting a historic program its first national championship since 1980.

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Defense is not living through a golden age in college football. Scoring has steadily risen for decades as teams have gotten more comfortable throwing the ball. The 2010s brought rapid innovation in spread offenses, with teams operating more frequently out of the shotgun and taking old-school option principles and applying them to a free-flowing passing attack. A rule that allows offensive linemen to block 3 yards downfield before the quarterback throws the ball (instead of 1 yard in the NFL) made run/pass options into a nightmarish weapon.

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Modern champions still have to be among the better defensive teams in the country. But they’ve increasingly won via overpowering offense more than anything else. 2019 LSU and 2020 Alabama had two of the greatest offenses in history, but that LSU team was 20th in the Defensive SP+ that year, and that Bama team was sixth. Both were first on offense, by wide margins, and had future NFL first-round QBs throwing to lists of future NFL receivers.

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Georgia has some players on offense. Tight end Brock Bowers, a true freshman, is going to be an NFL star for a long time. The Dawgs’ offense was highly efficient all year. But this team’s identity was always defense. Georgia entered the title game averaging 9.6 points allowed per game, the best in the country, and for the first half of the season was tracking to have the best season on record by “expected points added,” a measurement of down-to-down success. The Dawgs won’t finish quite that high, in large part because they had to play Bama’s excellent offense twice. But Smart’s defense was ferocious. It has bushels of future pros at every level, including two different players (tackle Jordan Davis and linebacker Nakobe Dean) for whom a reasonable person could have made a Heisman Trophy argument.

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The Georgia defense scored five touchdowns this year, including the 79-yard interception return by Kelee Ringo that formally put Alabama into a coffin on Monday night:

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While scoring five, the Georgia defense allowed 14 touchdowns, and four of those came in the 41–24 SEC Championship loss to the Tide, which the Dawgs have now avenged. They also used nose tackle Davis sporadically as a blocker in short-yardage situations on offense, including one that went for the game’s first touchdown on Monday. So, Georgia’s defense contributed to nearly as many touchdowns as it gave up. On Monday, the count was 2-to-1 in the defense’s favor. The Tide’s 18 points were the second-fewest by a team in the Playoff National Championship’s eight-year existence, only ahead of the 16 they scored in a loss to Clemson to cap 2018.

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2021 Georgia also stands out for the player who ultimately guided it to victory, Stetson Bennett IV. Bennett walked onto Georgia’s roster without a scholarship in 2017 and played as the scout-team quarterback. He left in 2018 to find playing time at a junior college in Mississippi, and returned to Athens as a barely used backup in 2019. A series of injuries and transfers led him to start five of the team’s 10 games in 2020, and then further injuries and Bennett’s steady play got him the starting job this year—ahead of three quarterbacks who were rated four or five stars by major recruiting agencies, as opposed to the zero-star Bennett.

Bennett was excellent for most of the year. He finishes the season third out of 125 qualified passers in ESPN’s Quarterback Rating, as well as in yards per throw. But he entered this game 0–2 against Alabama going back to 2020, with five interceptions in those games. Georgia had been so dominant that Bennett rarely needed to make ambitious throws against defenses that could properly align to stop them. Against Bama, he had needed to, and it hadn’t gone well.

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It was an open question whether he’d be up to the task against Saban’s team a third time, or whether it was even possible for a team in this offensively charmed era to win the title with a 5-foot-11 former walk-on who lacks dazzling arm strength and pinpoint accuracy. Bennett is not going to be a first-round pick like Mac Jones, Joe Burrow, Trevor Lawrence, Tua Tagovailoa, or Deshaun Watson, the past five QBs before him to lead teams to the title.

It turns out he didn’t need to be that guy, though. He just needed to make a handful of brilliant plays in the fourth quarter of this game while avoiding mistakes, and on that, he delivered. Bennett was 17-for-26 for 224 yards and two touchdowns, with no interceptions. He lost a fumble on a controversial call in the fourth quarter, setting up a quick Bama touchdown drive that threatened to derail Georgia’s season. But he recovered to lead two TD drives of his own. He threw a lovely deep ball to wideout Adonai Mitchell on a free play after a Bama pass-rusher had jumped offside, and Mitchell caught it for a 40-yard game-winning touchdown:

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Smart took a lot of guff for sticking with Bennett this season, even before the QB’s difficult outing against Alabama in December. Bennett’s play on Monday ensures Smart will not have to wonder if he should’ve given more snaps to one of his QB’s more touted backups. It also makes for the first exception to the new rule that teams need world-beating future NFL stars at quarterback in order to wear college football’s crown. Maybe I shouldn’t even assume Bennett won’t be a good pro quarterback, because betting against him is now a demonstrable strategy for going broke. At any rate, he became an all-time college QB by beating Saban on this stage.

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The Dawgs have been a college football paradox for a while now. They have essentially the perfect setup to compete for championships; they are the flagship program in a talent-rich state that has undertaken massive and diverse population growth. They have a prestigious recruiting brand, all the money in the world (or at least well over $100 million for football), and a devout fanbase. That they hadn’t won a national title in 41 years was an absurd accident, the product of some missed opportunities, some bad luck, and Saban repeatedly stuffing them into a locker. That they would eventually clear the hump, somehow and some way, was inevitable. That they would do it by cutting against some of the sport’s most powerful shifts, however, was not.

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