The next step for Kirby Smart and Georgia - total domination

Georgia coach Kirby Smart speaks at SEC Media Days in the College Football Hall of Fame on Wednesday, July 20, 2022, in Atlanta.   “Curtis Compton / Curtis”

Credit: Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@

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Georgia coach Kirby Smart speaks at SEC Media Days in the College Football Hall of Fame on Wednesday, July 20, 2022, in Atlanta. “Curtis Compton / Curtis”

Credit: Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@

It was Nov. 16, 2002, a cold day at Auburn. On fourth-and-15 with 1:25 left, David Greene threw long for Michael Johnson, who outjumped Horace Willis, who didn’t jump. On that day of deliverance, coach Mark Richt said his Bulldogs “knocked the lid off the Georgia program.”

And they did, sort of. That famous play – 70-X-Takeoff – gained Georgia its first berth in an SEC Championship game, in which it annihilated Arkansas. After 20 years without a conference title, the Bulldogs were back in the high life. They again were nationally relevant.

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And yet, try as he might, Richt couldn’t make Georgia a national champion. He was fired after a 15-year tenure that was a success in every other way. In came alumnus Kirby Smart, who nearly won it all in his second season. But Tua Tagovailoa found DeVonta Smith on second-and-26. Everything went ka-blooey again.

Three seasons passed. Georgia under Smart never seemed less than one of the nation’s 10 best teams – they were 31-7 over those three years – but they couldn’t get past Alabama or, in 2019, the LSU that briefly became Alabama. Smart heard doubts from the louder quadrants of Bulldog Nation: He couldn’t handle quarterbacks; he cared only about defense; he was too stubborn to change with the times.

With 8:30 remaining in January’s championship game, Georgia trailed Bama 18-13. Then Stetson Bennett, who wasn’t supposed to be good enough, found Adonai Mitchell deep. Then Bennett hit Brock Bowers in the left flat. Then Kelee Ringo intercepted Bryce Young’s overthrown pass and ran it back. Over the final 8:29, the Bulldogs outscored Bama 20-0.

With that, the figurative lid had been obliterated. Georgia was national champion. It will be national champion again soon. There’s no program better positioned to become the next Alabama, not even Bama itself.

Nick Saban turns 71 on Halloween. It’s possible to see him coaching another two or three seasons. It is not possible to envision him coaching beyond 75. Smart, by way of contrast, won’t turn 50 until Dec. 23, 2025.

Georgia just saw five defenders go in Round 1 of the NFL draft. That was a record. Such an outflow should have left substantial holes, until we note that the first player drafted – defensive end Travon Walker – was a starter only in the final of his three seasons. The Bulldogs have subs who also are great players.

Said Smart, speaking at SEC Media Days on Wednesday: “There’s a hunger among this group. That hunger comes from the opportunity people playing behind (such lofty draftees) have to replace them.”

Then: “The great news is, we’ve recruited well.”

Georgia never was a hard sell. It’s based in a state where snow isn’t an annual nuisance. Its campus is within the shadow of Atlanta. Georgia high school football is tremendous. Georgia fans are as rabid as any.

The Bulldogs, Smart reported, “have 95 players on NIL (agreements),” and such cash-on-the-barrelhead is, at least for now, A-OK. Smart again: “I don’t know that what’s going on is sustainable.”

But what he has built is. If NIL money went away tomorrow, Georgia would still find a way to assemble the nation’s deepest team. That’s what Smart and his staff do. They find ways. They bring in 5-stars and coach them up, even though some assistants leave to become head coaches elsewhere.

Said Smart, who’s not a braggart: “We know we’re going to have a good defense year-in and year-out.”

Back to that final 8:09 against Alabama: That was a case of very good players making huge plays, but also it was an indication that, in terms of aggregate talent, Smart’s team had outgrown his mentor’s. “Credibility to me is earned,” Smart said, and the ultimate stamp of credibility is to run down mighty Bama at the end.

He and his players, Smart said, have been talking about “how the mighty have fallen.” Alabama has repeated as titlist only once under Saban. Examples of hugely gifted teams that couldn’t go back-to-back include Bama in 2010, Florida State in 2014, Ohio State in 2015, Clemson in Trevor Lawrence’s sophomore season.

Smart: “We didn’t build this program on one-hit wonders. We built it to sustain.”

And: “We will not be hunted at the University of Georgia.”

This isn’t to say the Bulldogs are incapable of stumbling. Any team can have a bad day. Georgia under Smart doesn’t have many, though. It has been among the nation’s best teams for five years. It could be the nation’s best team over the next five.

More from SEC Media Days

- Photos: National champion Bulldogs take stage at SEC Media Days

- Kirby Smart not ready to slow his roll with Georgia Bulldogs

- Still doubting Stetson Bennett? That’s fine with him

- Nolan Smith focused on providing leadership for Bulldogs

- 5 things we learned from Georgia’s turn at SEC Media Days