Georgia Bulldogs poised to ‘defy the odds’ in 2022 football season

Credit: Tony Walsh/UGAAA

Credit: Tony Walsh/UGAAA

Editor’s note: This is the fourth and final story in a series examining the current state of athletic programs at the University of Georgia. Today’s installment focuses on the Bulldogs’ football program.

ATHENS – Vince Dooley is the most recent Georgia football coach to attempt to defend a national championship. He will turn 90 years old in September, the day after the Bulldogs open the season against Oregon at Mercedes-Benz Stadium.

He will tell you that repeating as a national champion is hard. “Crazy hard.” That’s why so few programs have done it, barely a handful in what’s defined as the modern era of college football.

ExploreMore AJC coverage of the Bulldogs

Many believe Dooley’s 1981 team was better than his 1980 national champions. They came up short.

But Dooley thinks Kirby Smart’s Bulldogs could do it. And whether they do, they should be in the mix, this season and beyond. That, Dooley said, is the key.

“I think he has a chance to compete almost yearly at the highest level, like only Nick Saban has been able to do,” Dooley said of Smart. “He had the advantage of being with Nick for nine or 10 years at Alabama. Kirby has used that as a model and adjusted it to his own philosophies. At the base of it is incredible recruiting, and that’s what he’s done and is doing.”

Of course, Smart bristles at the phrase “defending the title.” Like Saban, he emphasizes that every year is a new journey, and it is.

But sports, like business and many other pursuits, is about trying to build dynasties. It’s about not winning some of the time, but all of the time.

The first step is getting in the mix, the second is staying in the mix and the third is winning more titles than you lose when they’re in play. Georgia is on the second step, along with Clemson and Ohio State. Only Alabama is on the third.

“If you recruit like they have done at Alabama, and you end up in the top three or four every year, at least the top five, then you’ve got a chance to compete at the highest level every year,” Dooley said. “That’s hard to do, I mean really hard to do. Saban is the only to have done. But every decision Kirby makes is based on recruiting, and I think the way he’s got the program going now, he’s got a chance to be the second one to do that.”

A quick scan of recruiting rankings validates Dooley’s points. Thanks to the utilization of composite ratings and a more sophisticated scouting network, national recruiting rankings are more accurate than ever. And based on those measures, Alabama and Georgia have been recruiting at a different level than everybody else, and for a good while now.

With COVID-19 eligibility still in play this season, there will be numerous sixth-year seniors playing around the country. The Bulldogs have a couple of them in quarterback Stetson Bennett and linebacker Robert Beal.

Surveying the team national recruiting rankings compiled in the 247Sports Composite over that span, 2017-22, shows Alabama, Georgia and Ohio State recruiting at a consistently better pace than the rest of the country. The Crimson Tide hauled in three No. 1-ranked classes, while Georgia had two. Their average class ranking was 2.0 and 2.3, respectively. The Buckeyes were the only other program with a top five average at 4.8.

The rest of the teams included among the top 15 on that list experienced notable drops in one or more recruiting cycles. Ohio State fell to 14th in 2019 and LSU was 12th this past year and 15th in 2018. Doing it year-after-year without a drop has been Bama’s secret sauce.

AVERAGE RECRUITING RANKINGS 2017-22

1.Alabama – 2.0 | 2. Georgia – 2.3 | 3. Ohio St. – 4.8 | 4. LSU – 7.7

5. Texas A&M – 8.2 | 6. Clemson – 8.5 | 7. Oklahoma – 9.0 | 8. Texas -- 9.8

9. Michigan – 11.2 | 10. Notre Dame – 11.5 | 11. Oregon – 11.7 | 12. Florida – 12.0

13. Penn St. – 12.5 | 14. Auburn – 13.2 | 15. Miami – 15.2

The top recruiting marks on that list closely parallel the expectations for the coming season. Early returns show Alabama – who the Bulldogs vanquished in last year’s national championship game – as the prohibitive favorite to win it all. The Crimson Tide routinely are listed as 2-to-1 favorites in Las Vegas sports books (about +180), with Ohio State edging Georgia ever so slightly for the next-best odds and Clemson rounding out the top four.

Odds and prognostications vary widely. Generally, though, it follows that the teams that have collected the majority of the highest-rated players are expected to win the most games this season.

But even on this front there is some concern for UGA. The Bulldogs’ most fanatical recruiting followers are sounding alarms because the Bulldogs “slipped” to fourth and third in the past two cycles and stand a paltry ninth early in the 2023 cycle. This class, though, includes only 13 commitments to date and won’t be finalized until early February.

There are many other variables, of course. Transfers, both coming in and going out, are affecting rosters. Georgia has been dealing more with egress than ingress of late. Much of that has been simply to get down to the NCAA’s mandated 85 scholarships.

Name, image and likeness (NIL) arrangements and their associated “collectives” also have entered the recruiting equation. That has seen Texas A&M step up its game substantially. After averaging a 9.6 rating in the previous five classes, the Aggies shot up to No. 1 in this past cycle. On average, Vegas is giving them the sixth-best odds to contend for a title this year.

But the Bulldogs are positioned well to stay in the mix. Just in the past year they fully moved into their new $80 million addition to the expansive Butts-Mehre football complex. That punctuated more than $175 million in new facilities that have come on line for Smart since January 2017.

And the improvements will continue from there. Georgia’s athletic board in May approved plans for another $63.5 million of construction to be done at Sanford Stadium that will transform the south side and provide yet another space for the Bulldogs’ rapidly growing number of major donors.

But UGA’s greatest investment is in the person of Smart himself. Georgia plans to keep the 46-year-old coach around as long as it can.

Super agent Jimmy Sexton of Memphis, who has long represented Smart, has been working with UGA since January to complete a new contract that is expected to lock down Smart for at least 10 years and make him one of the highest-paid coaches in the game. Smart already makes more than $7.1 million a year in a deal that in 2018 was extended through the 2024 season. Including bonuses from winning the national championship last season, Smart’s compensation topped $8 million.

Published reports have Southern Cal’s Lincoln Riley, who just arrived from Oklahoma, as the top-paid coach, at $110 million over 10 years. Saban, who turns 71 in October, had long occupied the highest-paid spot before that. He’s due to make an average of $10.6 million a year through the 2029 season.

“It will be commensurate with what you would expect compensation to be for a national championship coach,” UGA President Jere Morehead said of Smart’s impending contract extension. “We’re close to finalizing those arrangements. I don’t think anybody will be surprised.”

Nobody will be surprised if the Bulldogs are back in the mix on the field this fall. Once again, they’re prohibitive favorites win the SEC’s Eastern Division. That would pit them against Alabama in the SEC Championship game, based on preseason prognostications.

If Georgia makes it back to Mercedes-Benz Stadium, it will do so with the youngest team of the Smart era. Fifty-six of the Bulldogs’ 85 scholarship players – or 66% -- will be freshmen or sophomores in eligibility.

“I don’t know if I can ever recall a time where we have had so many first-year players, actually mid-year players, that are getting valuable reps,” Smart said earlier this year. “Most of the time those guys are coming in your door are going with the (third team). That’s what we’re trying to get better with.”

That’s because Georgia lost an inordinate amount of talent to the NFL draft. The Bulldogs set an NFL record for a seven-round draft when 15 of their players were selected. That included five first-rounders, all of whom played on the defense.

That means UGA will be in a defensive rebuild a year after fielding what some called the best defense of this century. Georgia gave up only 10.2 points per game, which led the nation, and was more than four points per game better than the next best team.

But blue-chip defensive prospects have been lining up for the past several years to play in Smart’s system. Many have made names for themselves as backups.

Junior defensive tackle Jalen Carter, for instance, has only four career starts in his two seasons. But he has made enough plays (see blocked field-goal attempt in the CFP Campionship game) to project as an NFL first-rounder next year. The Bulldogs similarly are excited about inside linebacker Jamon “Pop” Dumas-Johnson, who had two sacks, a pass break-up and an interception return for a touchdown in limited play as a reserve.

It’s on offense, however, where optimism abounds. That begins with the return of Bennett. While he still doesn’t command the national respect he probably deserves, the Bulldogs are excited about having back a quarterback who finished fourth nationally in pass efficiency (176.7) and was named MVP of the Orange Bowl and the CFP title game.

Two of Bennett’s favorite targets return in tight end Brock Bowers and split end A.D. Mitchell. The Bulldogs will audition new running backs and two new guards. But in Year 3 under coordinator Todd Monken, the expectation is for the offense to be the best of the Smart era.

“I’m going to be better than last year, but this isn’t going to be the Stetson Bennett show,” Bennett said. “It’s going to be the University of Georgia football team.”

Meanwhile, Smart is having to navigate through the most extensive staff turnover he’s encountered as the Bulldogs’ coach. Georgia is breaking in four new on-field assistants, three strength-and-conditioning assistants and several members of the support staff.

All that comes with the territory of a defending national champion. The buzz and activity surrounding the program very much parallels what the Bulldogs experienced when they tried to repeat as national champions 41 years ago. In the summer of 1981, Georgia had just completed the East End enclosure of Sanford Stadium. Preliminary plans for the football building that eventually would be known as Butts-Mehre Heritage Hall were being flashed across Dooley’s desk.

Those Georgia teams were the only ones to win back-to-back-back SEC championships (1980-82). Alas, though, they could not run down another national title despite returning the best player in college football in Herschel Walker.

Dooley is hopeful this team can.

“I think it’s going to be very difficult, but I’d like to see Kirby defy the odds,” Dooley said. “I mean, it’s a possibility. The program he has going now has the chance to do that.”