ATHENS – Only two schools have repeated as college football national champions since the BCS era, and one of those is debatable as having done so. Southern Cal actually split the 2003 championship with LSU before winning its next title in 2004. Alabama won two in a row in 2011-12.
Since the College Football Playoff era was initiated in 2014, however, nobody has gone back-to-back. So, in a word, it’s hard.
The Georgia Bulldogs will bid to repeat this season after running down the program’s first national title in 41 years a season ago. It will attempt to do that amid an almost total defensive rebuild on the heels of losing a record 15 players off the 2021 team to the 2022 NFL draft.
Following are five things that need to go right – and can’t go wrong -- for the Bulldogs to win consecutive national titles:
» An even better Bennett
What needs to go right: Simply stated, Stetson Bennett needs to keep getting better. Forgotten because of his fairy-tale run to the championship last season is that Bennett has never entered a college offseason or preseason as the undisputed QB1. He did this year, and he said that has made a world of difference for him in terms of both preparation and confidence.
Not only has Bennett overseen 7-on-7 work this summer and gotten in all the most-important reps with Georgia’s primary receivers, he also has spent the entirety of the winter, spring and summer pouring over video and RPO concepts with offensive coordinator Todd Monken. Having spent the past year watching and working with Bennett, Monken knows what works best for the 5-foot-11, 190-pound playmaker. The offense the Bulldogs unveil in 2022 will be designed around Bennett’s specific skill set.
What could go wrong: The worst-case scenario is for Bennett to be sidelined either for injury or subpar performance. As much as fans have debated whether Carson Beck, Brock Vandagriff or Gunner Stockton might be the better signal-caller, anybody succeeding a sixth-year senior would have decidedly less experience. So, whichever quarterback takes over in the event of Bennett’s absence is going to be subjected to a trial by fire.
Short of that, if Bennett possesses an inherent flaw, it’s that he believes he can make any play in any situation. He’s a relative gunslinger when it comes to shots he’s willing to take with the football. Even as a backup last season, Bennett threw interceptions against Vanderbilt and South Carolina, and he had seven overall on the season. That’s a number Monken would like to see reduced, as well as fumbles and unnecessary contact taken running the football. Should Bennett continue to take big hits, a QB change could come quicker than expected.
» Reload up front on defense
What needs to go right: There’s no mystery why Georgia’s 2021 defense was one of college football’s best ever. There were four reasons, primarily, and their names are Jalen Carter, Jordan Davis, Travon Walker and Devonte Wyatt. Carter is back, but those other three guys all were first-round NFL draft picks. Carter, by all accounts, will join them in that distinction after this season. Davis, Walker and Wyatt all swear Carter is the best of all of them. So, it’s around the notable size and skills of No. 88 that the Bulldogs will attempt to re-create the magic of year ago.
The good news for UGA is that the players surrounding Carter have some mileage on their tires. Zion Logue, expected to take over for Davis at nose guard, played in all 15 games as a backup last season and at 6-5, 300, is at least similarly built, if not quite as gargantuan. Likewise, Tramel Walthour saw action in all 15 games last season and, while he’ll draw no comparisons to Walker, is a savvy and mature fifth-year senior. With contributions from a combination of lettermen awaiting their chances and young blue-chippers lured here by opportunity, the drop-off mightn’t be as precipitous as expected.
What could go wrong: Notable about the players who occupied the first line of defense for Georgia last season is that they manned their positions every week. With the exception of Wyatt, who sat out Week 2 against Alabama-Birmingham, they answered the bell and performed in all 15 contests. That’s freakishly uncommon for any position, but especially one that combines contact with fast-twitch movement every snap.
That the Bulldogs were able to sub regularly for their Fab Four helped, but there is less certainty about the backups this season. Warren Brinson, Nazir Stackhouse, Tyrion Ingram-Dawkins and Bill Norton and several others have awaited the chance to step into more prominent roles. That’s if they can hold off young blue-chippers just arriving to see what it’s all about. Georgia could encounter trouble if at least four other players don’t pan out or it’s not as fortunate health-wise as it was a year ago.
» Resurrect RBU
What needs to go right: Georgia needs Kenny McIntosh to stay healthy, Kendall Milton to get healthy and Branson Robinson to get up to speed if it is going to keep its reputation as RBU intact. The Bulldogs suffered a blow in preseason camp when freshman Andrew Paul suffered a torn ACL in the second scrimmage. By all accounts, the 5-11, 220-pound Paul was having an exceptional preseason. But Georgia really wasn’t counting on him or Robinson to make a big impact this season. They’re counting on Kenny McIntosh for that.
As long as McIntosh is able to play, the Bulldogs should be in good shape. The 6-1, 210-pound senior from Fort Lauderdale combines the tough-running attributes of last season’s workhorse Zamir White as well as pass-catching versatility of James Cook and gives Georgia a chance to have its first 1,000-yard rusher in three seasons. Meanwhile, coaches teammates have long raved about junior Daijun Edwards’ toughness and consistency. Together, these upperclassmen provide a solid trio.
What could go wrong: Cook and White played in all 15 games last season. Milton hasn’t made it through a season yet, or a preseason, for that matter. A 6-1, 220-pound running back from Fresno, Calif., Milton carried some 5-star recruiting ratings when he left high school to come to Georgia in January 2020. But he has managed to be on the field for only 15 of the Bulldogs’ 29 games since then. Milton missed six late-season contests last season because of a knee injury, but did make it back for Georgia’s playoff run. Milton missed the first half of preseason camp this year with a hamstring issue and has returned. Running backs coach Dell McGee said he prefers to have six backs at the ready for the season, and he’s down to four already this year. As a play-action/RPO offense, the Bulldogs can’t afford to come up short in the run game.
» Seeking big-play receivers
What needs to go right: Monken likes Georgia’s wide receiver corps. Loves it, in fact. He looks with incredulity when somebody asks him who is going to step up at the position. The Bulldogs’ wideouts couldn’t have stepped up any more than they did last season, with George Pickens sidelined for most of the year and Jermaine Burton on the sideline more than he was in the game.
“Maybe in some ways that made us better, you know,” Monken, Georgia’s third-year coordinator, said during preseason camp. “Once George went down, we had to figure ‘OK, we don’t have an X,’ … So, you have to get into more tight end, condensed sets.”
Out of that came the discovery of Brock Bowers. The freshman from California established a Georgia tight end record with 556 yards on 86 catches, 13 of which went for scores. Bowers’ 15.8 yards per reception was next best after aforementioned wideouts. Meanwhile, Ladd McConkey (31-447-5) and A.D. Mitchell (29-426-4) proved they were up to the task out wide. Along with Kearis Jackson, Marcus Rosemy-Jacksaint and a now-healthy Dominick Blaylock, Georgia has a full receiver rotation at its disposal.
What could go wrong: That said, there is no doubt that the Bulldogs will miss Pickens and flanker Burton. The big-play wideouts departed for the NFL and Alabama, respectively. Georgia needs to find somebody like them, whether they’ve been on the roster or just arrived. What set those two apart was their ability to take the lid off an opposing secondary. Pickens’ average of 21.4 yards per catch and Burton’s 19.1 led all wideouts with the exception of Arian Smith (34.0).
But Smith, a specialty receiver if there ever was one, was lost in preseason camp to a high-ankle injury and likely is out for the season. Georgia’s recruitment of the highest-rated receiver prospects has been subpar the past couple of seasons. De’Nylon Morrissette and C.J. Smith, who were recruited to address that shortcoming, both have been slowed by injury. Three-star signee Dillon Bell has been impressive and consistent, but the search continues for a field-stretcher.
» Bolster kicking game
What needs to go right: First and foremost, punter Bret Thorson has to come through at punter. Or somebody. Thorson, who hails from Victoria, Australia, replaces Jake Camarda, who was selected in the fourth round of the NFL draft by the Tampa Bay Bucs, not only averaged 46.7 yards per punt while earning All-SEC honors, but he also handled kickoff and placement-kick-holder duties. So that’s three specialist roles that have to be filled right there. As for punter, Thorson was competing with walk-on Noah Jones for that job.
Meanwhile, the Bulldogs need to see improvement with their returns game as well. Preseason competition on both punt and kickoff return was intense.
What could go wrong: Georgia went to a lot of trouble to designate Thorson as the heir apparent punter. But there’s no guarantee that that his skills will translate to the American came. He came to the U.S. as a “footy,” or someone who plays Australian Rules Football. The two sports are not a lot alike beyond running and kicking. Even if Thorson wins the job outright, his first in-game experience will be under the lights of a packed-out Mercedes-Benz Stadium on Sept. 3. It’s bound to be a nervous moment whenever the Bulldogs are forced to punt.
Georgia managed to win a national championship last season without the dynamic returns game it has come to expect, but the Bulldogs definitely will be counting on place-kicker Jack Podlesny again. A former walk-on from St. Simons Island, Podlesny is 35-of-43 on field-goal attempts as a Bulldog and has made some gigantic kicks in his career. But he hasn’t had a great camp.
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