Georgia Bulldogs have returned to greatness because of a great coach

Credit: Bob Andres for the Atlanta Constitution

Credit: Bob Andres for the Atlanta Constitution

From Jan. 2, 1981, through Jan. 9, 2022, Georgia went without a national championship. Over that span, 22 national titles were taken by schools based in states that share a border – or, in the case of the 1990 UPI titlist, share a state – with this one. It’s bad enough if your team can’t quite hit it big; it’s a hundred times worse if all your neighbors do.

For 41 years, Georgia was the program that had it all – some of the time, anyway – but couldn’t win it all. Incongruities abounded. From 2006-16, the Bulldogs went 9-2 against Auburn; the two years the Tigers won, they played for national championships. From 2002-12, Georgia won the SEC East five times and had eight 10-win seasons without playing for a BCS title; Florida won the East three times and had four 10-win seasons while winning two BCS titles.

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From Jan. 2, 1981, though Jan. 9, 2022, Clemson won championships under two different coaches. So did Florida. So did Alabama. So did Florida State. Miami won five titles under four different coaches. The last Georgia coach to claim the crown was Vince Dooley, who worked his final game Jan. 1, 1989 – in the Gator Bowl.

Mark Richt’s career record as a head coach was 171-64. Gene Chizik’s was 38-38. Guess which one wound up with Cam Newton and a national championship.

When Richt’s Bulldogs clinched the SEC East at Auburn in 2002 – 70-X-Takeoff, David Greene to Michael Johnson on fourth-and-15 – their coach claimed they’d knocked the lid off the program. As it happened, they’d knocked the lid only askew. Georgia won two SEC titles under Richt, finishing in the Associated Press top 10 in seven of his 15 seasons. They came really, really close in 2002, 2007 and 2012. They just couldn’t negotiate that final step.

But look now. Georgia is where many among us wondered if it would ever be again. It won the 2021 national title. It played for the 2017 national title. It is favored to claim the 2022 national title. Over the past six seasons, it’s 71-10. Since Nov. 8, 2020, it’s 31-1. Of those 31 victories, 28 have come by double figures. It has won 19 consecutive SEC regular-season games. It’s 10-1 against ranked opponents.

Georgia has been so dominant for so long that all those seasons when it fell just short of dominance seem ancient history. On Dec. 6, 2015, it hired Kirby Smart, who hadn’t turned 40. After a halting first season, his Bulldogs got good. Then they got even better. Now they’re so majestic we spend long hours wondering if this year’s team is better than last year’s, which many believed to be the finest in school annals. Note: UGA first fielded a football team in 1892.

Smart will turn 47 two days before Christmas. He came to his alma mater intent on modeling Georgia after Alabama. It took him five tries to beat Bama, but it finally happened. A week ago, the Bulldogs scored 50 points against LSU, which beat the Crimson Tide in overtime and won the SEC West. A week ago, Nick Saban’s attempt to lobby his way into the playoff was laughed out of court. Nobody’s laughing at Georgia.

Of his team, Smart said: “These guys are not comprehend-able.” They are, though. The Bulldogs are believers. They heed their coach because they know he knows what’s he doing. His assistants change. His coordinators change. Smart never changes. He demands excellence, and he has the championship rings – four from Alabama, one with Georgia – to show what excellence can bring.

It isn’t just that Georgia has great players, though it does. It’s that those players are at their greatest at all the right moments. The Bulldogs led LSU 35-10 at the half, but the third quarter began with them fumbling and punting. Meanwhile, the Tigers drove to one touchdown and were stopped on fourth down at the UGA 5. Georgia led by 18, but it needed to regain control. It did.

On third-and-6 from its 9, Georgia ran a screen – Stetson Bennett pitching, Marcus Rosemy-Jacksaint catching, many Bulldogs blocking – exquisite in its execution. “The biggest play of the game,” Smart would call it. Five runs later – the first two by Kendall Milton, the final three by Kenny McIntosh – netted 73 yards and a touchdown. The 95-yard drive took eight plays, seven of them runs, and 4-1/2 minutes.

Georgia recruits great talent. It turns great talent into great players. That only happens because of great coaching. Yes, we’re throwing around the G-word a lot, but it fits. Smart has lifted Georgia back to greatness.