Having won it all, Georgia football is poised to win lots more

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

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

Vince Dooley was 21-4 against Kentucky, 21-1-1 against Vanderbilt, 19-6 against Georgia Tech. That’s what you’d call a baseline. Never – well, almost never – did Dooley’s Georgia lose to somebody it shouldn’t have.

Kirby Smart has built his own baseline. Forget his first season, which included losses to Vandy and Tech. From 2017 on, the Bulldogs have lost five regular-season games. Only in the COVID-19 season of 2020 did they more than one. Only twice have the losses come against SEC East brethren – Florida in 2020, which was understandable, and South Carolina in 2019, which this observer considers the biggest upset in Sanford Stadium history.

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Over the past five seasons, Georgia is 58-10. Four losses were to Alabama. Apart from the South Carolina aberration – Jake Fromm threw three interceptions and lost a fumble; Rodrigo Blankenship missed two field-goal tries, the second in overtime – only the Sugar Bowl against Texas could be deemed a significant upset, and the Longhorns entered the game ranked 15th. Also Georgia, denied a playoff spot, didn’t want to be there.

Auburn was ranked 10th in November 2017, LSU seventh in October 2018. Both games were played on the road before frothing crowds. Auburn won 40-17. (It would lose the SEC Championship game to Georgia 28-7 three weeks later.) LSU won 36-16. In both years, Georgia absorbed its loss and still won the East.

Dooley used to say – still does, when last I checked – that a team has only so many peak performances in it. Maybe two or three in a season, but not nine or 11 or 12. Smart and his teams have established a concrete floor. Georgia won’t lose at Sanford Stadium; won’t lose anywhere to anybody unranked and isn’t apt to lose to any team from its division. Over the past five years, the Bulldogs are 27-2 against the East.

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Going by preseason polls, Georgia is scheduled to play against two ranked opponents – the opener with No. 11 Oregon in Mercedes-Benz Stadium, the other in November at 20th-ranked Kentucky. The Bulldogs should be favored in every game. They’re favored by 16.5 points over the Ducks.

No SEC opponent came within 14 points of the Bulldogs in the 2021 regular season. Four SEC West teams are ranked in the Associated Press Top 25; Georgia won’t see any of them before December. It’s hard to imagine UGA losing a scheduled game. It’s impossible to envision it losing twice.

With achievement, aspirations change. When Mark Richt arrived from Florida State, Georgia fans just wanted to win the East. Richt’s team won it five times. Thus did Bulldog Nation come to expect more. Georgia didn’t play for a national championship under Richt – or, to be fair, under Ray Goff or Jim Donnan.

Smart has taken this program to the title game twice in five years, and now he has beaten Bama. Nobody will get overly excited about beating Tennessee between the hedges, but such games get you where you want to go.

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Georgia has come to occupy a space not visited since Dooley had Herschel. Its coaching has caught up to its recruiting. At worst, it ranks among the nation’s top four programs. The only reason it hasn’t broken 10 wins each of the past five seasons is that the 2020 Vandy game wasn’t played. Folks were surprised that Stetson Bennett was the quarterback who took the Bulldogs to the summit. It can’t be a surprise if he does it again.

A big-time program with the wind at its back is a mighty force. Georgia has won 18 of its past 19 games. It lost a ton of talent to the NFL, but its past five recruiting classes ranked first, second, first, fourth and third in the nation. It has all it needs to win more national championships, and it will.