Not many college football programs experience the sensation of knocking on the proverbial door to a national championship. Even fewer get to feel what it’s like to walk through it.
In Kirby Smart’s five years at Georgia, the Bulldogs have felt the former, but fans are clamoring for the latter. Smart has gotten UGA to the top of the hump, but not yet over it, a place the program hasn’t been in over 40 years.
To be fair, unless it’s Alabama or Clemson, getting over said hump may be as hard as it has ever been. One of those two programs has won the national championship in five out of the last six years and five out of the seven seasons of the College Football Playoff era.
The Bulldogs have gotten oh so close. They knocked hard on that door in 2017 and even felt the knob turn before Alabama, Tua Tagovailoa and DeVonta Smith turned the deadbolt on 2nd-and-26.
As heartbreaking as that moment was, it felt like the beginning of something special in Athens. UGA’s recruiting had already taken off under Smart, and he flashed his coaching and motivational chops that season by leading a team that had struggled to an 8–5 finish the year before to an SEC championship, a Rose Bowl victory and the national title game.
But UGA fans have learned that there’s no such thing as playing with house money. It may have seemed like Georgia was ahead of schedule, but as Smart said many times during that season, there is no schedule.
In three of the last four seasons, counting the College Football Playoff run in 2017, Georgia has controlled its own destiny into December. The Bulldogs played in the SEC Championship Game in three straight years, with one win over Auburn, another gut-wrenchingly close loss to Alabama and a blowout defeat at the hands of the 2019 LSU buzzsaw. It’s not like the Bulldogs are irrelevant. Even last year when Georgia lost to the Crimson Tide on the road in Week 4 of the season, all the Dawgs needed for another shot at the Tide in Atlanta was a fourth straight win over Florida in Jacksonville. They jumped out to a 14–0 lead before quarterback Stetson Bennett IV and wide receiver Marcus Rosemy-Jacksaint got hurt and it all came unraveled. The Gators won, and the Bulldog faithful were forced to utter the all-too-familiar “there’s always next season” refrain sooner than they had since Smart’s first season.
Opposing fans can poke fun all they want at Georgia’s constant “Wait ’til next year” chatter, but 129 Football Bowl Subdivision teams are left saying some version of that phrase every year. Next season is now for Smart and Co., and once again, the pieces are in place to get it done. In fact, this Georgia team is different than the previous five under Smart.
The 2021 version of UGA football will feature the offense as the tip of the spear. The passing game opened up late in the 2020 season when Smart inserted former five-star prospect and USC standout JT Daniels as the starting quarterback. That’s when offensive coordinator Todd Monken, now headed into his second season with the program, saw his unit take off.
The forward pass is as big of a part of college football as it has ever been. Two of the most dynamic passing attacks in the history of the sport, LSU in 2019 and Alabama in 2020, have won the past two national championships. UGA presumably has the horses at quarterback and receiver to start biting off yardage in chunks and scoring points in bunches.
Of course, as has become the norm for UGA in one way or another, there has already been a setback. The Bulldogs were returning almost all of their receiving production from the 2020 season and 100 percent of their yards and touchdowns in the run game, but arguably the team’s most talented player on that side of the ball, George Pickens, may not be able to play at all in 2021. He suffered a spring-ending, season-jeopardizing ACL injury in the Bulldogs’ fourth spring practice. He hasn’t been ruled out for the year, but it’s highly unlikely that he’ll be back on the field before the start of November.
Still, the conversation surrounding Georgia football after Pickens’ injury is proof that things have changed. In years past, when Georgia would lose its top pass catcher or running back, the setback would have catastrophic effects. That’s no longer the case.
The pass-catching group is still talented and dynamic, led by Jermaine Burton and Kearis Jackson. Both players had multiple games in which they led the team in receiving last season. Redshirt freshman Arian Smith brings speed to the table. Dominick Blaylock and Rosemy-Jacksaint, once they’re healthy, provide a physical presence. The tight end room is teeming with talent, and UGA almost never falls short at running back. It won’t in 2021, either. The offensive line returns three of five starters, and the defensive front seven is loaded.
Overall talent, however, has never been the problem. It’s nearly impossible to stay in the hunt for as many years in a row as Georgia has if you’re lacking in that department. The issue has been a missed tackle here or a blown assignment there, a missed block in a key situation or an overthrown pass in a big game.
Maybe that’s why Smart changed things up this offseason. Instead of just encouraging his players to press their noses to the grindstone in winter workouts and focusing on getting bigger, stronger and faster, he made them look each other in the eye in “skull sessions.”
Players sat down with one another in small groups and told their stories. They discussed their struggles to get where they are, what they had to overcome, what they fear and why they endure the long practices and the grueling workouts.
Smart’s objective is simple. If each player, to a man, knows what makes his teammates tick, it’s easier to focus on a common goal. The necessary sacrifices are easier to make. Negative has the potential to turn positive with the smallest of comments. Georgia hasn’t slowed down with its physical training, but it is attempting to foster an environment that takes connection and brotherhood to another level.
Only time will tell whether the 2021 Bulldogs will have what it takes to break the title drought. When you go 40 years without a title, it’s impossible to pin down one reason why. It would probably be difficult to condense the list of reasons into single digits.
But with an enhanced passing attack and a different offseason approach, this UGA team is different than the previous five led by Smart. The question now becomes whether he’s pushed the right buttons this time.
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