This doesn’t have to be the year for Georgia football, but it should be

Georgia head coach Kirby Smart during the Bulldogs’ practice session in Athens, Ga., on Thursday, Aug. 12, 2021. (Photo by Mackenzie Miles)

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Georgia head coach Kirby Smart during the Bulldogs’ practice session in Athens, Ga., on Thursday, Aug. 12, 2021. (Photo by Mackenzie Miles)

It’s not the case that this must be the year for Georgia football. Kirby Smart has built the program in the image of his old boss, Nick Saban. The Bulldogs have yet to win big like Alabama, but they are set up to have a chance to do it for a long time.

The AJC examined the prolific football fundraising that makes possible Georgia’s extravagant spending on facilities and staff. Smart’s ability to sign elite player talent is second only to Saban. If the Bulldogs don’t end their national championship drought this season, Smart and all that money mean they should be in the hunt for many more years.

But so many things shout out that this should be the year Georgia finally wins it all again. Nearly everything is aligned for the Bulldogs to return to the College Football Playoff after their one appearance in the 2017 season. I know we’ve been hearing that for a while about Georgia, but hear me out.

Georgia is one of the few CFP contenders with an experienced, proven quarterback. Offensive coordinator Todd Monken knows how to utilize JT Daniels. Smart gradually has let go of his ball-control-and-defense formula in favor of a more modern approach. The Bulldogs have a good running backs corps, of course. Smart’s defenses always are elite, and he plugged holes in the secondary with transfer players.

The only real negative for the Bulldogs is the ACL injury suffered by junior wide receiver George Pickens during a practice in March. The Bulldogs have other good receivers and terrific talent at tight end. But Pickens is their top big-play threat and has developed a connection with quarterback Daniels. It will be a setback if Pickens can’t play this season.

What’s not to like about the Bulldogs other than that?

They rightly will begin the season as a top CFP contender. The most meaningful opinions are those with money behind them. Bookmakers have Georgia at 6-to-1 to win the CFP, same as Ohio State, with only Alabama (3-1) and Clemson (5-1) getting shorter odds. The Bulldogs are a good bet.

Georgia has longer odds than Clemson to win the CFP because getting there is harder in the SEC. If Clemson loses the opener to Georgia in Charlotte, the Tigers should be significant favorites in every other game. That includes the ACC Championship game, unless you believe this is the year that the running joke about Miami being back will expire.

Ohio State’s odds seem low to me. Quarterback Justin Fields is in the NFL, and his inexperienced successor will have to be ready quickly. The Buckeyes have tests at home against Oregon and Penn State and play four road opponents who can give them trouble: Michigan, Nebraska, Indiana and Minnesota.

Alabama is, as usual, the main obstacle for Georgia’s CFP ambitions. The Crimson Tide aren’t on the schedule this season. Unofficially, they are on it every season. The SEC Championship game is Georgia’s floor, and Alabama is usually there as West champion. The Bulldogs can’t shoot for the CFP and not think about Bama.

The Tide are favored to repeat as CFP champion based largely on the benefit of the doubt. They’ve earned it. Alabama is the only program that can send multiple major award winners to the NFL and still be expected to stay on top. I’m still shaking my head about eight Alabama players being selected within the first 38 picks of the last draft.

Among them are quarterback Mac Jones, running back Najee Harris and wide receivers Jaylen Waddle and DeVonta Smith. They were the top skill players for an all-time great offense on what probably was Saban’s best team. The expectation is that the talented players who’ve been waiting their turn will seamlessly take on bigger roles. That’s usually how it works at Alabama.

This year is different, though. Saban never has had so many top NFL prospects leave at once. The closest parallel is 2012, when four players from the 2011 national championship team were selected in the first round of the next draft. The Tide won it all again the next season, but they had incumbent AJ McCarron at quarterback.

This season it will be Bryce Young, who played mop-up minutes as a freshman. Jones didn’t have much experience when he took over for Tua Tagovailoa, and that turned out great. If Young also is a fast learner, the Tide likely are headed back to the CFP for the sixth time in eight seasons with a chance to win it for the fourth time.

Georgia enjoys an advantage by being settled at quarterback with a good player. The reason to be skeptical of Daniels is that he played in only four games last season as he recovered from a knee injury and Smart took his time putting him in the lineup. Daniels was great overall. He wasn’t so sharp against Cincinnati, which had the best defense he faced.

That small sample is offset by circumstances. Daniels had the tough task of taking over a struggling offense in November after being limited during the offseason. He hadn’t played in a game since Aug. 31, 2019. Daniels exceeded expectations for Georgia, and the conditions are better for him this season.

Said Monken: “It’s different when you come into the year as the starter. The first part is he’s more comfortable with our players. The second part is he’s very, very comfortable with the offense and (changing plays) at the line of scrimmage, do things that is (under) player control, which he likes to be involved.”

Georgia’s QB situation is better than nearly every other CFP contender. The last CFP field included Alabama, Clemson, Ohio State and Notre Dame. All four teams will break in new starting quarterbacks this fall. So will defending SEC East champ Florida, which remains Georgia’s only real challenger in the East.

Combined number of collegiate pass attempts for the projected QB starters at Alabama, Clemson and Ohio State: 139. Daniels had 119 attempts in 2020 and completed 67.2% of them for 1,231 yards and 10 touchdowns against two interceptions. Florida, Alabama, Clemson are looking for answers in their receiving corps. Daniels has several good targets even without Pickens.

Smart persuaded Daniels to transfer to Georgia when he already had Jamie Newman on board. That proved to be prescient once Newman opted out of the 2020 season. It is one of many moves that Smart got right. Bulldogs backers know the list of things Smart got wrong.

It includes the fake punt against Alabama, the belated embrace of a wide-open offense and (relatedly) the safe choice of Jake Fromm over Justin Fields. Even Georgia supporters who like what Smart has done in the big picture must lament the missteps that have kept Georgia from taking the difficult, final step from elite contender to national champion.

Smart is 52-14 in five seasons at Georgia with three East titles and one SEC championship. His predecessor, Mark Richt, was 52-13 over his first five seasons with three East titles and two SEC championships. But the SEC landscape that Richt navigated back then wasn’t nearly as harsh as the one Smart faced when he took the job.

Smart told Georgia donors in 2018 that the Bulldogs were playing catch-up with SEC West teams in terms of investment in the program. That’s no longer a problem. The Bulldogs are more than caught up with spending on facilities and staff, which is what programs do because they aren’t paying players their market value.

The strong financial foundation is a reason why the Bulldogs are set up to be national title contenders for years to come. But this season should finally be Georgia’s year to win it all.

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