National champion Bulldogs more powerful on recruiting trail

Fans fill Sanford stadium for the program.  The Georgia Bulldogs football team, the 2022 College Football Playoff National Championship winners between the Georgia Bulldogs and the Alabama Crimson Tide, celebrate with a parade in Athens, GA,  on Saturday, January 15, 2022.   Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@ajc.com

Credit: Curtis Compton / curtis.compton@ajc.com

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Fans fill Sanford stadium for the program. The Georgia Bulldogs football team, the 2022 College Football Playoff National Championship winners between the Georgia Bulldogs and the Alabama Crimson Tide, celebrate with a parade in Athens, GA, on Saturday, January 15, 2022. Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@ajc.com

Credit: Curtis Compton / curtis.compton@ajc.com

Editor’s Note: Georgia’s first national championship in 41 years will have an impact more far-reaching than the football program. In Sports, this is the fourth in a series of stories examining how the title will impact fans, admissions, recruiting and politics.

There’s a line from a hit 2016 Bruno Mars song that fits the mood of the national champion Georgia football program.

“I’m a dangerous man with some money in my pocket,” Mars sang.

ExplorePart 1: What championship means to fans: ‘Relief, euphoria, thankfulness’

Head coach Kirby Smart has had booster money in his program’s pocket since that first season in 2016. He put a championship in Georgia’s back pocket after 33-18 victory over Alabama earlier this month. Georgia hosted a championship parade and celebration five days later.

The fans were there to see conquering champions. There were also about seven rows of reserved seats on the 40-yard line. Those were for the next wave of 24K Magic recruits, to borrow from another Mars song.

Caleb Downs and Vic Burley, 5-star in-state juniors, both said it was the “ultimate flex” for Georgia. While the Bulldogs have hosted recruits on January “Junior Days” in previous years, this one had a parade, several trophies and hero speeches. Rival schools were lucky to have a basketball game on their campus that weekend. Georgia had the SEC Network airing part of their “Junior Day” live. SEC commissioner Greg Sankey said nobody had ever thrown a championship party like Georgia. The day showed how the Bulldogs would use the title to amplify their reach on the recruiting trail.

“Georgia winning the national championship is dangerous for recruiting,” said Treyaun Webb, a Georgia target. “Kirby Smart was always a great recruiter. The coaching staff always has great recruiters. But now you throw in a national championship, it basically tells recruits the plan does work. The proof is in the pudding. So whatever Kirby tells you, he’s not lying. It showed by winning the national championship.

“With them winning the national championship, the whole vibe was different. As far as visits go. They actually have something to show for what they are talking about as far as recruiting.”

ExplorePart 2: National title will drive Georgia’s athletics revenue train

Smart’s program has an average national team recruiting ranking of 2.8 for the six cycles he’s led the program. Nick Saban’s Alabama, with a 1.8 overall average, was the only program to top that.

A closer look at the last four cycles really gets interesting.

The Crimson Tide has finished with a 2.25 average national ranking since 2018. The Bulldogs are at 2.0. That was when recruits could look at Alabama and Georgia and two clear differences. Separation was found inside the trophy cases and in Alabama’s formidable NFL pipeline.

Georgia will likely see three first-rounders go in this year’s NFL draft. When as many as 10 or more players are also selected, that gap will be harder to spot. Championships and NFL dreams. That’s what every recruit wants after their three to four years. Not necessarily in that order.

Look for Celebration Day 2022 to be every bit the boon to recruiting as Smart’s first G-Day Game that drew 93,000 fans. Likely even more so.

ExplorePart 3: Belief makes Georgia Bulldogs a threat to win it all again

The early returns came from seeing all those elite recruits posing with the championship hardware. There is now a marquee “Natty Champs 2021″ sign in the locker room for photo ops. Georgia let the blue chip recruits that day pose with the Coaches’ Trophy and the National Championship Trophy. Downs said it was “special” to hold the spoils of the national championship victory.

If the Bulldogs could out recruit Alabama the last four years after going 41 years without a championship, how much better will it be now?

Burley said he’s been to Athens five or six times before. The celebration day was different to him.

“You could feel all the energy that was coming from the coaches,” Burley said. “All the players. Just that energy of happiness. Just celebration. Just that type of energy.”

Burley, the 5-star defensive lineman from Warner Robins, said Georgia showed him something last season. He saw the Bulldogs beat Clemson in Charlotte. He knew then they were going all the way.

When he posed in Athens, he kissed the trophy.

“When I saw Kirby was able to pick up the crystal football, I think that was my favorite part,” Burley said. “To see the coach that has been recruiting me since my ninth grade year to win a national championship, that was it.”

ExploreThe drought is over: Georgia is national champion again

Downs focused on Georgia finally being able to beat Saban.

“It never really mattered to me about the championship,” Downs said of Georgia. “I would say it mattered to me if they could win the big game.”

Webb, classified as an athlete from Florida, was once committed to Georgia. He de-committed to quickly flip to Oklahoma. When head coach Lincoln Riley left for USC, he backed off that pledge. Webb was at the Charleston Southern game and came back for the championship celebration.

Smart and his Bulldogs will look up to no one in 2022. Not in facilities. Not in fan support. Not even in championship momentum.

“He told those guys six years ago he had a plan,” Webb said. “He told those seniors that same plan and then they went out and executed it. He was like we could be that next group of kids to stick to the plan. I think that Georgia winning the natty will definitely put them far ahead of the game in recruiting.”