The national championship hurdle has been cleared in Athens, Ga., and now a new challenge awaits — defending it. Georgia, in its seventh season under Kirby Smart, is as talented as ever, but getting back to, and winning, the big one will be extremely tough, as evidenced by the number of Bulldogs who were selected in the 2022 NFL Draft.
The offense returns a significant amount of production and experience, but the defense, a unit that was historically good in 2021, will aim to reload rather than rebuild. It'll take that and more if UGA has designs on going back-to-back.
Previewing Georgia's Offense for 2022
As hard as it is to believe, Stetson Bennett is back for his sixth season at Georgia and his seventh of college ball after spending 2018 at Jones (Miss.) Community College. He was the subject of great scrutiny during the 2021 season, as fans and some media types were clamoring for former five-star prospect JT Daniels, who began the season as the starter. The switch never happened, and Daniels entered the transfer portal soon after the Bulldogs celebrated the big prize, ultimately landing at West Virginia.
Bennett has seen it all, and he silenced doubters with an Orange Bowl MVP performance in the College Football Playoff Semifinal vs. Michigan and a dazzling fourth-quarter showing in the national championship game win over Alabama. It's going to be tough to knock him off the starter's perch, but it's not Smart's style to have offensive coordinator Todd Monken just hand him the job. Bennett will be pushed by redshirt sophomore Carson Beck, redshirt freshman Brock Vandagriff and true freshman Gunner Stockton.
Georgia is known as "Running Back U" for a reason, and the ability to plug and play at that position is a major factor. Zamir White and James Cook are out, but Kenny McIntosh and Kendall Milton remain. Those two had fantastic springs, but bruising tailback Branson Robinson, a summer arrival, is worth monitoring.
The transfer portal hit UGA's pass-catching group hard at the end of the 2021 season when Jermaine Burton entered his name and then made his way to Alabama. Still, the Bulldogs have some ultra-talented players to lean on. That group includes the team's leading receiver in 2021, tight end Brock Bowers. He missed the spring with a shoulder injury but will be good to go in time for preseason camp.
One of the heroes of the National Championship Game, Adonai Mitchell, also returns, and the Bulldogs are hoping that they'll have the services of the freakishly gifted Arik Gilbert, a tight end/wide receiver combo athlete who missed the 2021 season for personal reasons. Gilbert went through spring practice with the team, and behind-the-scenes buzz suggests that he turned plenty of heads.
The offensive line brings back three of five starters from last season's squad. The guy expected to step in at left tackle, Broderick Jones, started four games and saw extensive action in two others, including the National Championship Game.
Previewing Georgia's Defense for 2022
UGA's 2021 defense was special, and expecting the 2022 group to pick up where it left off is unrealistic. Still, it's worth noting that many of last year's preseason projections had that defense as a potential weak link.
The Bulldogs have to replace some serious talent on the defensive line, but the good news is that position coach Tray Scott has plenty more stockpiled. Jalen Carter, arguably the most talented defender on the 2021 squad, is back, and he'll anchor the front. Fellow junior Nazir Stackhouse had an excellent offseason, as did veteran defensive end Tramel Walthour.
The outside linebacker group got a massive boost when Nolan Smith and Robert Beal Jr. elected to return. Those two wreaked havoc late in the 2021 season, especially during the playoffs. Inside linebacker is a different story, as UGA had all three of its key contributors drafted. There will be new faces manning the second level of the defense, but Jamon Dumas-Johnson has shown a great deal of promise, while Smael Mondon Jr. and Xavian Sorey Jr. are two of the best overall athletes on the team.
Georgia's secondary exceeded expectations a year ago when it was forced to replace both cornerbacks. Deal-sealing cornerback Kelee Ringo, the nation's top player at that position in the 2020 class, is entering his second season as the starter. The job across from him is up for grabs, but sophomore Kamari Lassiter manned it in the spring.
Chris Smith is back for a fifth season at one of the safety spots, and the competition for the other one should last deep into preseason camp.
Previewing Georgia's Specialists for 2022
Thunder-footed punter Jake Camarda is off to the NFL, so the Bulldogs went down under to get Brett Thorson in the 2022 class. He enrolled in the spring and is expected to win that job. Clutch placekicker Jack Podlesny is also back after making some big kicks during the 2021 stretch run. The Bulldogs are also set at the return positions, with Kearis Jackson and Kenny McIntosh having tremendous experience with punt and kick returns, respectively.
Georgia's talent level gives it a high floor and a high ceiling. Smart's crew will be big, fast and physical on both sides of the ball, but it's never easy to replace the amount of production the Bulldogs lost after winning it all a year ago. Finding leadership will be the key to navigating yet another workable schedule.
National Ranking: 3
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