Bradley’s Buzz: Repeating is tough. So why is UGA so serene?

The first College Football Playoff champion figured to be the second CFB winner, too. Ohio State entered the 2015 season as the first unanimous No. 1 in the annals of the Associated Press poll. The Buckeyes returned every player of consequence – Cardale Jones, Ezekiel Elliott, Michael Thomas, Joey Bosa, Raekwon McMillan, Vonn Bell, Eli Apple – from the stunning 2014 title, plus two quarterbacks lost to injury en route.

Ohio State was lucky to crack the first CFP field. The Buckeyes were 16th in the committee’s first rankings. They’d lost starting quarterback Braxton Miller in preseason. They’d suffered a home loss to Virginia Tech on Labor Day weekend behind J.T. Barrett, Miller’s backup. They didn’t lose another game, but they did lose Barrett, injured in the victory over Michigan on Nov. 29.

This left third-stringer Jones to start against Wisconsin for the Big Ten title. Ranked No. 5 by the CFP, the Buckeyes won 59-0. Jones threw for 257 yards and three touchdowns, proving to the committee, if not to the folks in the Big 12, that Ohio State could compete for a national championship without Barrett.

The final rankings saw Ohio State jump TCU, which was No. 3 six days earlier and had beaten Iowa State 55-3, to claim the fourth seed. The Buckeyes’ reward: No. 1 Alabama in the Superdome. Bama led 21-6 two minutes before halftime. Touchdowns by Elliott and Thomas tied the game at the break. Jones threw a touchdown pass to open the third quarter. Blake Sims threw a pick-6. Elliott’s 85-yard burst iced it. OSU 42, Bama 35.

Oregon and Marcus Mariota awaited in the final. The Buckeyes led 21-10 at the half, 42-20 at the end. Urban Meyer had his third national championship, with a fourth apt to arrive soon. How could a team this good keep all its best players and not win again?

Having three quarterbacks, believed to be OSU’s strength, turned out otherwise. Miller was moved to H-back in training camp. Jones was named the starter over Barrett, though both played. Barrett eventually supplanted Jones. The Buckeyes stayed unbeaten, though they were no longer ranked No. 1. A struggle in the opener at Virginia Tech – they trailed at the half – became the season’s theme. They were good, yes, but not as good as advertised.

The inevitable loss came Nov. 21. Michigan State, a team of much lesser means, held Ohio State to 132 yards (!) and five first downs (!!!) and won on a last-second field goal. Barrett passed for 46 yards. “There’s no chance of me coming back next year,” said Elliott, a junior who managed 33 yards.

The Buckeyes finished No. 7 in the CFP rankings. Michigan State, which won the Big Ten, was invited to the playoff. It lost 38-0 to Alabama in the semis. Ohio State went 12-1, losing one game by three points. It remains one of the most gifted teams not to win it all. It also stands as a cautionary tale: The second time is always harder.

There hasn’t been a repeat national champ since Alabama in 2011 and 2012, back in the BCS days. The Tide have made the playoff seven times in nine years. Haven’t won two in a row, though. Clemson made the playoff six years running. Its two wins, both over Bama, sandwiched a semifinal loss, also to Bama.

Which brings us to Georgia. It’s the defending champ. It’s seeded No. 1. It isn’t, however, the same team. Five defenders were taken in Round 1 of the NFL draft. Playmakers Zamir White, James Cook, George Pickens and Jermaine Burton exited after the Bulldogs took their title in Indianapolis. UGA isn’t as talented as it was then, but it might be a better team.

Some of this has to do with Kirby Smart’s seasonal theme: “We will NOT be hunted at the University of Georgia.” The bigger part has to do with coaches continuing to coach and players growing in skill and confidence as the wins pile up. The Bulldogs are never sloppy. The Bulldogs are never rattled.

This season hasn’t been the series of closer-than-expected calls we saw from Ohio State in 2015 or Florida State, coming off its 2013 BCS title, in 2014. Apart from a glitch at Missouri, Year 2 has been a smooth glide. The Bulldogs know what needs doing and how to do it. They’re not as worried about the NFL as high-achieving teams of yesteryear because they’re already being paid, courtesy of NIL.

Great teams fall short by believing greatness is enough. What sets Georgia 2022 apart is that it doesn’t carry itself like a great team. It knows it can lose. That’s why it hasn’t lost.

The above is part of a regular exercise, written and curated by yours truly, available to all who register on AJC.com for our free Sports Daily newsletter. The full Buzz, which includes more opinions and extras like a weekly poll and pithy quotes, arrives via email around 1:30 p.m. on Monday, Wednesday and Friday.

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