Keeping his Bulldogs on the hunt, Kirby Smart has Georgia primed to follow path to repeat in 2022 season

ATLANTA — Talk to some of the key contributors returning from Georgia’s national championship-winning team, and you’ll realize the window for the Bulldogs to celebrate their first title in more than four decades lasted mere nano seconds after the 33-18 win over Alabama in the College Football Playoff National Championship.

“To be honest, the fans are thinking about it [a repeat] after the game,” coach Kirby Smart told CBS Sports during SEC Media Days. “That’s all they can think about. That’s what everybody wants. That’s the way it was every time we won one at Alabama. [The fans] can’t get enough.”

Forbearance is not a quality usually linked to Georgia fans, even after that long-awaited victory. 

“It was fast. It was quick,” Georgia linebacker Nolan Smith Jr. said of the do-it-again talk. 

“It was probably something like, ‘We can’t wait for you to repeat,’ quarterback Stetson Bennett recalled. “That night.”

Impatience may not be fair at this point, but neither is a shiv from behind — figuratively speaking. 

“I’ve told our players: Every time they’re patting you on the back, next year that could be a knife,” Smart said. 

All of it is meant to be a description of a natty aftermath, not a deflection. Certainly a repeat is not a demand from Dawg Nation (we think), but it remains a possibility.

It is Smart’s job to keep his program’s focus on the straight and narrow. This the Dawgs’ time, sure, but their followers want it to be all the time. In that sense, nothing has changed in Athens, Georgia. The angst that was alleviated on Jan. 11 in Indianapolis has merely transitioned to a different form of longing. 

Great season. Now, what’s next?

Smart knows that. He has lived it, winning four championships as an assistant at Alabama. Two of those accounted for the only repeat in the game in the last 17 years (Alabama 2011-12). But even Smart has to admit this one is different. Life- and career-changing different. As coach of his alma mater, the native son led his school out of a 40-year wandering in the college football desert. The only thing missing that night inside Lucas Oil Stadium was Indianapolis actually being painted red.

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Georgia’s first national championship in forever is now 9 ½ months old, but it seems like the offseason has been another forever for Dawg Nation. 

“It’s like a satisfaction deal,” Smart said. “As soon as you win one, you move on to the next. It’s really no different for coaches. There’s nothing worse than having people pat you on the back and tell you how good you did when really you’re focused on the next one. You’re trying to move on.”

Here’s what moving on looks like: The path to a repeat actually is easy to imagine. Georgia is most likely going to start in the top four of every preseason poll that matters. The defense is not going to be generational like it was last season, but it’ll perform darn close to that level. And let’s say the Dawgs finish in the top five defensively instead of the best unit in 20 years — that’s not bad, and certainly good enough to win it all again. 

Quarterback Stetson Bennett iV has gone from taking no spring reps ahead of the 2021 season, to looking over his shoulder for all of the regular season, to being the unabashed QB1 in 2022 already with a ring on his finger. 

Any scenario that gets the Dawgs to CFP Selection Sunday on Sunday, Dec. 3 with less than two losses almost certainly lands them back in the four-team field for the third time since 2017. Sure, Alabama might be there waiting, same as last year after an SEC Championship Game meeting in which the Crimson Tide were victorious. One step at a time. 

Speaking of the CFP field, in an interview with CBS Sports, Smart also lamented some of college football’s exclusivity as the landscape of the sport continues to shift.

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“You’ve got an unlevel playing field,” Georgia’s coach said. “There’s very few teams that start the season — maybe 10, maybe 12 — that realistically have a shot. You get a lot of repeaters. We’ve been one of those teams. We just haven’t been able to do it.”

That isn’t necessarily a bad thing, especially if you’re in the SEC. Only 13 teams have earned berths into the College Football Playoff in its eight-year history. Georgia became only the fifth team to win it.  

The way the game is going, parity isn’t coming anytime soon. SEC commissioner Greg Sankey on Monday seemingly hinted that any expanded playoff wouldn’t be accepting automatic qualifying bids from conference champions, just the best teams available. That definitely helps the best college football conference on the planet. 

“I do think it’s great for the game to have a little more parity,” Smart continued. “I look at the NFL having parity. Everybody’s got a chance. The system is built where it’s not the same team repeatedly and everybody is kind of playing on the same playing field. It’s not the same way in college football.”

Not that Smart wants to be knocked off his throne. The 46-year-old is positioning himself for a Hall-of-Fame career. But Smart hasn’t even hit his prime; his mentor, Nick Saban, won his first national championship at age 58. 

That makes Smart, like Saban, somewhat of an oracle. Talk to him about being the hunted this season instead of the hunter, and you get a rebuke. Georgia was favored in every game it played last year, and that’s probably going to be the case this year. 

“I’m never going to be hunted,” Smart said. “Why would we not be hunted every year? … I’ll never go into a game saying we’re hunted. We’re always going to be on attack.”

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Smart also fears for football — not in the SEC, but football overall. These are tenuous times with a reallocation of revenue almost a certainty. 

“I don’t think football’s going to change. I think it’s going to get more separated,” Smart said. “There’s going to be more division of haves and have nots. I’m not saying it’s good or bad. People could argue a dynasty is a good thing. I like the rivalries. I like the build-up and other teams winning. It’s good for college football. 

“But very few can keep up. You think about it, football is a finically expensive sport when it comes to traveling, numbers, equipment. There’s very few programs that are turning a profit. The ones that do are turning a good one. But if you don’t turn a profit, it’s hard to go to your president and say let’s keep football afloat because it drains you financially.”

Does Smart foresee FBS teams dropping football in this new age? He is certainly clued in to an attendance downturn that has gripped the sport.

“The first thing they’re going to cut is non-revenue sports if fans quit coming, if people turn the game off or attendance is down. It’s been down. It’s a scary time. Some fan bases are turned off — NIL and portal stuff. Say what you want, consumers are what matters.” 

The typical offseason for a national championship coach is predictably constricting. Everyone — from corporations to quarterback clubs — wants a minute of your time. Smart has been able to manage the work/life balance, getting away for a vacation and doing fund-raising with the president. He even knocked off some speaking engagements that were postponed and carried over from the COVID-19 year in 2020. 

Now it’s time to chase a repeat. Just don’t ask him about it. He’s been through championships before. 

“It’s incredible, it’s awesome, it’s unique,” Smart said of the latest ring, “and it’s over too.”

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