Make no mistake; life is very good for the Georgia Bulldogs and their fans right now. Everyone associated with the program is still riding high after the Bulldogs captured their first national championship since 1980. Getting it by beating Alabama, the defending champion who had handed Georgia its first loss in the SEC Championship Game a little more than a month prior, was just icing on the cake.
But all the celebrating that's already happened and will continue doesn't change the fact that the 2021 season is over and the '22 campaign will be here before you know it. The Bulldogs will be the defending champs, but they probably won't start the season at No. 1, not after losing so many players from that team due to the NFL draft, graduation, or transfer.
It also doesn't mean, however, that Georgia isn't going to be a threat to win it all again. Head coach Kirby Smart hasn't put in all this work developing and building this program just to win one national title. The names on the roster will change, but the Bulldogs aren't going away anytime soon. Here are just three reasons to expect the Dawgs to mount a stern title defense in 2022.
1. Bulldogs are built for the long haul
There are going to be quite a few new faces in Georgia's starting lineup in 2022, especially on defense. As many as 20 former Bulldogs could be taken in the upcoming NFL draft, with the possibility of four or more going in the first round alone. That's on top of the handful of players who have transferred since the national title game, including wide receiver Jermaine Burton (Alabama) and quarterback JT Daniels (undecided).
For most programs, losing almost an entire starting offense and defense would be a devastating blow, but that's not the case with Georgia. One thing Kirby Smart has done since taking over the reins at his alma mater prior to the 2016 season is something he learned from Nick Saban, his mentor, former boss, and the best head coach in college football history — recruit, recruit and recruit some more.
Since Smart arrived in Athens, the Bulldogs have finished no lower than sixth in 247Sports' Composite rankings, including a pair of No. 1 overall classes (2018, '20). If you look back at just the last five years, Georgia is tied with Alabama in average recruiting ranking, meaning on paper, these two teams have the best rosters in the nation during this span. While this doesn't take into account attrition (i.e, transfers either in or out), this is as good a measure as there is when it comes to the health of a program, especially if it's accompanied by wins. And the Bulldogs have certainly done that, going 58-10 overall and 36-5 in the SEC from 2017-21. Those totals are second only to the Crimson Tide (64-6, 38-4) and Clemson (61-8, 38-4 ACC), who along with Georgia and LSU have combined to win the last five national titles. (Ohio State has more conference wins, 38-3 in Big Ten play, than Georgia for this span but fewer victories overall and no national titles.)
So Smart and his coaching staff certainly have their work cut out for them this spring with so many starting spots available, but they're also adding the nation's No. 3-ranked recruiting class to what remains one of the most talented rosters in the country. The headliners of their latest influx of talent, you ask? Five 5-star recruits, all defensive players. Changes may be coming to the depth chart, but the Bulldogs don't have to worry about any supply chain issues when it comes to high-quality talent.
2. Championship-winning QB with plenty of weapons
One of the spots on the depth chart that doesn't figure to change is quarterback. Stetson Bennett IV probably won't factor in the Heisman Trophy race, and he won't threaten Bryce Young for the title of best quarterback in the SEC, but he has one thing no other starting signal-caller in the FBS can claim right now — a national title.
Bennett proved his mettle and then some by winning MVP honors in the College Football Playoff National Championship after performing so poorly against Alabama in the SEC title game, and the experience he gained should pay off in 2022. But Bennett won't be expected to do it alone, and even with multiple defections via the draft and portal, he'll have plenty of help around him.
It starts with Brock Bowers, the All-America candidate and nation's best tight end after a huge freshman campaign. There are also wide receivers Adonai Mitchell, Kearis Jackson, and Ladd McConkey, who all finished among the top seven on the team last season in both receptions and yards. The backfield will look different with Zamir White and James Cook off to the NFL, but Kenny McIntosh and Kendall Milton are returning, and 4-star Branson Robinson, the No. 4 recruit at his position, could join the mix. The offensive line will need to be reconfigured, but like most position groups, the Bulldogs don't lack options.
With so many new faces on defense, it could take a few games for that side of the ball to find the right rotation and settle into a rhythm. The good news for Georgia is that it has a battle-tested quarterback with a pretty deep supporting cast ready to do its part.
3. Easy path back to the playoff
It's always risky to use the word "easy" to describe an SEC team's schedule, but Georgia's 2022 slate is clear of two fairly large roadblocks when it comes to their chances of getting back to the College Football Playoff. The Bulldogs don't face Alabama or Texas A&M, at least not in the regular season.
Instead, Georgia's crossover opponents this fall are Auburn (home) and Mississippi State (away). The Tigers are the Bulldogs' traditional SEC West draw, but not only have Smart and Co. won five in a row in this series, Auburn also is dealing with plenty of uncertainty right now starting with head coach Bryan Harsin's job security and carrying over to a roster that’s in flux. Meanwhile, the SEC West's Bulldogs are coming off of a winning campaign (7-6) in Mike Leach's second season at the helm but went 4-4 in conference games and just don't appear to be a major threat to a team the caliber of Georgia.
As for the SEC East, archrival Florida has a new head coach (Billy Napier) and plenty to prove after a disappointing 2021 campaign, while Kentucky, Tennessee, and South Carolina each has just as many question marks as the Bulldogs do entering spring practice but don't possess the accompanying track record or perceived roster strength. Also, the matchup with the Gators is on a neutral field and the Volunteers must come to Athens, so the toughest road dates are with the Gamecocks and the Wildcats and they come on opposite ends of the schedule.
Georgia does open its season on Sept. 3 against perennial Pac-12 contender Oregon, but that game will be played in Atlanta and will mark former Bulldogs defensive coordinator Dan Lanning's head-coaching debut. You don't think Smart won't be favored in his matchup against his former pupil? And on top of that, the Ducks have lost some key players, including standout defensive end Kayvon Thibodeaux and running back CJ Verdell, and will have a new starting quarterback, which could be Auburn transfer Bo Nix. He's someone Georgia knows fairly well and has had plenty of success against.
So while it's certainly not "easy" to get to the playoff let alone win it, the Bulldogs' path for a shot at defending their national title has been laid out, and it doesn't appear to be too daunting. At least not until they go back to Atlanta to try and do the one thing they didn't this past season — win the SEC championship. So there is a little unfinished business to take care of too.
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