No. 1 Georgia Bulldogs flirting with history

LEXINGTON, Ky. – The Georgia Bulldogs are in “high cotton.”

That agricultural phrase -- meaning the crops are good and the prices are, too -- applies well to what the state university has going on with its football program these days.

Undefeated and ranked No. 1 in the land, the Bulldogs (10-0, 7-0 SEC) arrived here Friday as 22.5-point favorites over a Kentucky team (6-4, 3-4) that was predicted to be their primary challenger to winning the SEC’s Eastern Division. Instead, the Bulldogs showed up with its ticket to the SEC Championship game already punched.

Georgia’s motivation now is perfection. And if the Bulldogs somehow can run it down, an argument could be made that the Kirby Smart Era is the greatest period in program’s storied history.

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“I would say Vince’s Herschel years were pretty special,” said UGA’s resident historian Loran Smith, who has been inside the Georgia program for more than six decades now, of Vince Dooley and Herschel Walker in the early 1980s. “But outside of that and the 1940s, this is the best position we’ve ever been in. I think you can say Kirby has proven that he’s doing the best job ever of capitalizing on our potential.”

The Bulldogs logged an undefeated regular season last year on the way to capturing the program’s first national championship in 41 years. But there was a hiccup along the way. They lost to Alabama in the SEC Championship game before exacting revenge in the College Football Playoff Championship game 37 days later.

Where to go from there? For Smart, the seventh-year head coach, it’s about always improving, always straining to be better. So, the only way to top what happened last year is to win them all this time around.

That is a rarity.

Only three times in Georgia’s 130-year, football-playing history have the Bulldogs recorded an undefeated, untied season. For the sake of discussion, we can set aside that 4-0 season of 1896.

The other two perfect seasons -- 1946 (11-0) and 1980 (12-0) -- were legitimate accomplishments. Each ended with national championship. Only one, though, was fully recognized.

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Coach Wally Butts’ ‘46 Bulldogs thoroughly dominated every opponent they faced. That included North Carolina and Charlie “Choo Choo” Justice, who was outdueled by UGA great Charley Trippi 20-10 in the Sugar Bowl.

Neither Notre Dame nor Army bothered to play in a bowl that year. Despite each of them having ties on their ledgers, the many national championship distinctions of that day went mostly to those two. Divvied out in early December, Georgia did get one nod from the Williamson Poll. The NCAA’s official record recognizes only Notre Dame that year, as it was the Associated Press choice.

“World War II interrupted what coach Butts had going on, which was pretty doggone good,” Smith said. “They won (the national championship) in 1942, and almost certainly would have won at least one other one.”

There is no quibbling with what the Bulldogs did under Dooley in 1980, however. Led by Walker, an otherworldly freshman tailback, they were a consensus choice as national champion after defeating Notre Dame in the Sugar Bowl.

The Bulldogs probably should have claimed a couple of more. They came close but were unable, winning three consecutive SEC championships, but losing in bowl games.

“If we’d won the championship in ‘81 or ‘82, which came down to the final game those years, that would’ve been stunning,” Smith said. “But I’d say this could be Georgia’s greatest era.”

There will be little argument if the Bulldogs can sustain their current pace. They have won 28 of the past 29 games, dating to the loss against Florida in the pandemic season of 2020. The only blemish after that was the 41-24 loss to Bama in the SEC title game last year.

The Bulldogs have won 12 consecutive games since that one. That’s five short of the longest in school history, when Georgia won 17 consecutive from 1945-47. An unblotted run to the 2022 national championship would tie that streak.

Of this, the Bulldogs themselves say they have not given one iota of thought. The not-so-secret formula to Smart’s success has been a microscopically, narrow focus on only the next opponent and the specific details that it will take to defeat it.

“We keep our conversations relative to what’s one foot in front of us,” Smart said this week. “We just talk about Kentucky.”

Coach Mark Stoops’ Wildcats represent a relatively uncomplicated challenge. They run the ball extremely hard and play defense moderately well, but do little else of great distinction. Having won 12 in a row in the series, Georgia counters with the SEC’s top defense and No. 2 offense. Winning games by an average of 29 points this season, the Bulldogs will defend the SEC’s 14th-rated offense with one that gives up just 11.6 points a game.

Meanwhile, Kentucky is a bit freaked out at the moment. The Wildcats are coming off a shocking 24-21 loss at home to Vanderbilt that snapped at 26 games the Commodores’ SEC losing streak.

Stoops laughed apologetically when he forgot to mention Georgia until he was two-thirds through his weekly press conference. He’d been too busy laundry-listing the Wildcats’ concerns to the press.

“I don’t think I have to,” he said of praising Georgia. “With what Kirby has done and the job he’s done in recruiting and coaching, they deserve to be number one. They are awfully impressive in every way, shape and form.”

Having missed out on an SEC title on the way to the national title last year, that remains a great incentive for the Bulldogs this season. But they need a win over Kentucky first, and that would secure the program’s eighth undefeated conference season in history. Last year’s unblemished SEC slate was Georgia’s first since 1982.

A key part of the Bulldogs’ current success is the how the program has been built. This year, Georgia lost a record 15 players off its 2021 championship team to the NFL draft in April. Eight of those players played on defense, five of whom were selected in the first round. The Bulldogs replaced them not with proven acquisitions from the transfer portal, but with unproven, previously recruited prospects who entered the program on the promise of being developed to be the next great player at their respective positions.

That is what truly separates this current Georgia football era from every other one. Smart has been recruiting on an unprecedented level, one matched previously only by Alabama. He seems to truly enjoy that part of the job. Not every coach does. Many believe recruiting is the most annoying aspect of being a college coach, especially in the age of the transfer portal and NIL.

Smart, and his staff by association, embraces it.

“Kirby thrives on recruiting,” Smith observed. “Part of it is his competitive instincts and part of it is his personality. He’s really a tremendous competitor, and he doesn’t like to lose. But he doesn’t rant and rave about it. He’s all business. He actually loves getting to know the kids and their parents. They trust him.”

The hardest work, though, remains ahead for the Bulldogs. The prospect of getting by Kentucky and Georgia Tech doesn’t look too complicated. But beating LSU in the SEC Championship game and two playoff teams from a pool that includes fellow unbeatens Ohio State, Michigan and TCU and one-loss powerhouses such as Tennessee, USC, Clemson, that’s going to be super hard.

But it’s not like it’s never been done before. There have been 62 undefeated national champions in college football since 1936, and 25 of those happened since Georgia last did it in 1980.

Considerably more rare is a repeat national champion. Since the College Football Playoff era began in 2014, nobody has won back-to-back titles. In the BCS era, Alabama was the last to do it, winning two in a row under Nick Saban in 2011-12.

Over the summer, Dooley noted the similarities between Saban’s program and Georgia’s under Smart. He predicted that the Bulldogs very well could repeat this year.

“I think the way Kirby’s got the program going now, he’s got a chance to do that,” Dooley said.

Dooley died last month in Athens at the age of 90. His death came only a few weeks after a 100-year-old Trippi died. Their contributions to the program are being recognized by the current Bulldogs. Trippi’s No. 62 is now affixed as a decal on the team’s helmets. A patch memorializing Dooley’s time as coach and athletic director has been sewn into the front of the jerseys.

There’s something fitting about the memory of two past champions literally being a part of the Bulldogs’ current uniforms. Perhaps they can do something those two Georgia greats could not.