Sports

Georgia Is Now College Football’s Inevitability

The Bulldogs’ second-straight national championship cements them as the surest thing the sport has.

Bennett, helmet off, raises his fists in triumph with confetti on the field under him and a Georgia G hanging on a banner behind him.
Stetson Bennett after Georgia defeated TCU in the College Football Playoff National Championship game at SoFi Stadium on Monday in Inglewood, California. Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

College football’s national championship game on Monday was over minutes after it started. Reasonable people may differ on the exact moment when TCU died a spiritual death against unbeaten Georgia, but it was long before halftime (score then: 38–7) and a lifetime before the result went final (score then: 65–7). It was as noncompetitive a championship game as anyone will ever witness in any sport.

Georgia got one minor scare in the regular season against Missouri, then got a terror against Ohio State in the Peach Bowl semifinal of the College Football Playoff. The Bulldogs were not the kind of national champion, like 2019 LSU, that steamrolls 15 out of 15 opponents—just 12 or so in this case, with plaudits to the MAC’s Kent State for staying within 17 points back in September. But for the whole year, the only time the Dawgs were in any substantial trouble was when the Buckeyes had a second-half lead on them and then a chance to beat them with a 50-yard field goal at the buzzer. That ball sailed wide left at almost the exact second another one was dropping in Times Square on New Year’s Eve. That was the portion of UGA’s championship DVD that allows the producers to use suspenseful music for a few seconds.

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Otherwise, the Dawgs were playing a different sport than the rest of the country. After winning 2021’s national title, most people expected a mild regression. Those people were arguably proved correct, yet Georgia was still the sport’s most impressive team from the opening minutes of Week 1, when they blitzed Oregon, 49–3. Within a few weeks, they moved from a preseason No. 3 ranking back to what is now their customary No. 1 spot. One of the Dawgs’ many advantages is an apparent ability to manufacture grievance to inspire vicious play. Head coach Kirby Smart has repeatedly returned to an idea that nobody believed in Georgia, apparently because some media members ranked them behind Alabama in August. That’s probably a trick Smart learned from his old boss in Tuscaloosa, Nick Saban. But even Saban can’t fake outrage as well as Smart, who now has back-to-back titles to match his old boss’ from 2011 and ’12. For a decade or so, Saban’s Crimson Tide were college football’s one inevitable team. They can’t be anymore, because Smart and the Bulldogs are now the surest thing the sport has to offer.

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TCU got to Monday night with magic. The Horned Frogs had gone 5–7 in the prior season and mounted an absurd year-one turnaround under a new head coach, Sonny Dykes. They did not have Georgia’s avalanche of former five-star recruits, nor even the numbers of slightly less heralded four-stars that have historically been necessary for teams to even sniff national titles. The Frogs were a great story. Their problem was that they ran into a team that doesn’t need magic and doesn’t even want it. Instead, UGA has recruiting, development, and the schematic expertise to get the most out of those other assets. They will probably be back in this same game next year, and if they’re not, it won’t be much longer until they return. Their newfound inevitability will last as long as Smart, 47, remains interested in coaching college football. It will probably go longer than that, because the state of Georgia has become a talent pipeline to rival (or exceed) Florida, Texas, and California. Where else will those players go? To Georgia Tech?

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Inevitability doesn’t mean turning back-to-back championships into 10 in a row. But it means being right there in the playoff discussion every year, making the field most years, and winning some games once there. (Attendance and the ability to win playoff games are not the same thing, as the Oklahomas, Michigans, and Notre Dames of the world can all attest.) Inevitability means being Goliath and losing only the occasional playoff game to other, slightly smaller Goliaths, like Alabama and Ohio State. It means being the biggest fish in the sea in a sport with almost no parity. That’s who the Bulldogs are now.

Their recruiting now matches and sometimes exceeds Alabama’s at the sport’s tippy top, but that’s only part of why they’re here. Georgia football has every possible dollar at its disposal and spends its shekels with ruthless efficiency that we can see from the outside. When the Dawgs trailed Ohio State in the second half of the Peach Bowl semifinal, the Buckeyes called a fake punt and easily converted a first down that threatened to put Georgia away. Except it didn’t count, because Smart had called a timeout a split second before Ohio State’s long snapper launched the ball backward. One manifestation of Georgia’s resource haul is that the Dawgs have a veritable army of support staffers, including noncoaching “analysts” whose job is to pore over game tape for hours and hours in search of any little edge or tendency. Someone figured out that Ohio State’s formation gave away a fake punt. Smart got his timeout, Georgia got the ball back, and the Dawgs embarked on a comeback. Georgia has the best players, the best coaches, and the nicest toys to make sure that everyone gets the most out of one another.

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This has become a machine without an exposed exhaust port. For Smart’s first few years, the easiest knock against him was that he didn’t evaluate quarterbacks well and failed to build an offense commensurate with UGA’s talent. That was a fair critique of a man who once started someone named Jake Fromm over Justin Fields for an entire season. But Smart eventually figured out quarterback like he solved everything else. To many observers, present company included, Stetson Bennett IV was a punchline when he seized the starting job at the beginning of 2021. Bennett was a short former walk-on, and Smart put him at the head of the greatest roster in the country. The idea was doomed until it wasn’t, and Bennett played well up to and through a national championship win against Alabama. Bennett then came back to school, became a Heisman Trophy finalist, and won yet another title on Monday night. He improved by leaps and bounds, while coordinator Todd Monken crafted an offense that busted old criticisms of Georgia’s offenses as clunky and uncreative.

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Still, this 15–0 Georgia team had what passes at Georgia for problems. The prior year’s defense was maybe the best to ever play college football. This year’s unit was among the country’s best but nowhere near a statistical all-timer. It had only one player, lineman Jalen Carter, who was the kind of one-man horror show for opposing offenses that UGA had a bushel of in 2021. A few teams, most notably Ohio State, made these Dawgs defenders look mortal. The offense didn’t have a wideout with 700 yards entering Monday and instead relied a lot on two great tight ends, Brock Bowers and Darnell Washington. So, naturally, the Dawgs scored 65 points, a deflated total because of a missed extra point and Smart’s decision to have mercy and pull starters early in the fourth quarter. On a team full of four- and five-stars, Bennett and a former three-star receiver, Ladd McConkey, connected for a pair of touchdowns.

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The Dawgs’ schedule for 2023 is, uh, light. They’ll be back in the SEC Championship, probably, and may have already clinched a playoff spot by kickoff of that game. (They had before this year’s game.) They’ll probably play Alabama, but whether or not they win, they’ll be back within a few good performances of a national title the following year, and the one after that, and the one after that. They may have the rare injury-aided down year, but even that probably will not keep them from contending for titles. The expansion of the playoff to 12 teams, coming in 2024, will give the Dawgs (and the Tide, for that matter) a margin for error that they do not need. It will take a lot of calamity for Smart’s team to miss out on the playoff in the foreseeable future. TCU was collateral damage in the opening chapters of what will only become a larger trail of destructions. The long arc of college football now bends toward Athens.

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