After national title, Kirby Smart sees Georgia football built to last, not 'flash in pan'
Recruits on visits to Georgia this spring saw firsthand the results of donors pouring more than $100 million into facility upgrades in recent years including a glistening football operations center, a much-needed indoor practice facility and a new game-day locker room.
They also posed with something the program earned last season: the college football national championship trophy.
After ending a 41-year national title drought behind a generational defense and an underrated offense with former walk-on Stetson Bennett at quarterback, will the incoming recruiting classes add more hardware during their time in Athens? Or will Georgia slide back like an LSU team that won the national title just two seasons earlier?
Coach Kirby Smart doesn’t see his program as a “flash in the pan,” he told fans this offseason when talking about the program maintaining a level of excellence.
“I think we’ve been there,” he said at an event in Duluth in April. “It’s not like this is the first time we’ve been in the conversation. I’m all for consistency. We’ve consistently performed and been consistent in recruiting and been consistent on the field.”
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Georgia has finished in the top seven each of the last five seasons in the AP poll, something only Ohio State has done. Georgia is tied with Clemson for second most national championship game appearances since the 2017 season with two behind Alabama’s four.
“You have to stay in that conversation,” said Smart, who won the national title in his sixth Georgia season and second College Football Playoff championship game. “Now this will be the most talent as a whole we’ve lost at once, but every year we lose juniors who are really good players. …The challenge as coaches is to make sure we bring in enough talent to replace those. We are also developing.”
Georgia lost an NFL modern day record 15 draft picks including a record five first round picks off the defense.
Talent still oozes all over the roster and the Bulldogs return Bennett for a sixth college season after he did what critics thought he couldn’t by leading the team to a national title.
He’s back for more.
“I’m a self motivator I guess,” he said. “I want to win every single time, so that doesn’t change anything as far as what we want to accomplish this year.”
Bennett and the other returning players including breakout tight end Brock Bowers and projected NFL first round defensive tackle Jalen Carter will be joined by newcomers from a recruiting class ranked No. 3 in the nation by the 247Sports Composite, a sixth straight top 3 class under Smart.
Georgia has a look of a program built to last like Alabama—the program Smart helped build as defensive coordinator under Nick Saban and one the Bulldogs finally knocked off 33-18 in the national championship game--more than a one-hit wonder like Ed Orgeron’s Tigers turned out to be.
LSU went from preseason No. 6 in 2020 to unranked at the end of that season.
The magic spun by quarterback Joe Burrow and an explosive offense with passing game coordinator Joe Brady disappeared. After going 9-8 in the 17 games after LSU’s national title, Orgeron was fired in October of last season.
“It’s probably apples and oranges,” LSU athletic director Scott Woodward said last week at the SEC spring meetings. “Two different people. I know Kirby well and obviously I know Coach O well. Two different situations, two different things.”
Woodward, who returned to his alma mater before the 2019 season and was the school’s director of external affairs when Smart was a Tigers assistant in 2004, said he would be surprised if Georgia takes a downturn under Smart. Woodward made a splashy hire in luring Brian Kelly from Notre Dame to Baton Rouge to coach the Tigers, but couldn’t pinpoint what went wrong after the 2019 national title.
Whether that’s a sense of complacency or staff departures including defensive coordinator Dave Aranda or other things swirling around the program at the time including Orgeron’s handling of sexual misconduct allegations against a player.
“There were a lot of factors and if I knew the answer, I would be a Nobel Prize winner,” Woodward said. “I just don’t know. You don’t know what happens. The secret ingredients and the magic was right in 2019. That’s something they’ll never take away from O and it was right. What happened after that? I kind of wish I knew. I really do. I wasn’t expecting it.”
Smart liked how the 2022 Bulldogs have handled the months that followed a moment that the Bulldog fan base had waited decades to come.
“The pats on the back, the kids get them, everywhere you go, every time you go out in your communities, you get that, you use that for energy but that story was last year,” said Smart, the former UGA All-SEC safety. “A lot of those guys are no longer part of this team. You’ve got a group of young men who were a part of the team, and I’m extremely excited about going out and playing football games with them. Everybody thinks you have to be a certain age to be a performer on the football field, but if you are talented enough … we’ve got some talented guys, we just don’t have a lot of experience. They’ve bought in, they’ve done a tremendous job in the offseason.”
Smart’s team may be the reigning national champions, but he’s already pushed back on any notion that Georgia is the defending national champions.
“That was never our end all and be all last year,” Smart said at an event at the Augusta Boys & Girls Club in April. “That team last year, they wanted to destroy everybody that they played. They never talked about a national championship. That’s easy for the fan base to say I want to win a national championship. Our goal was to go out and annihilate, make your opponent quit, make them never want to play you again.”
Smart tells the story of two players wanting to address the team after the Missouri game because they weren’t happy with the effort shown.
That came after a 43-6 rout. The players wanted the entire team to show up for an optional Sunday lifting session.
“It’s so much work that went into that season, that national championship,” said Jamaree Salyer, Georgia’s starting left tackle the past two seasons who was a sixth-round draft pick by the Chargers in April. “It didn’t just happen. Everybody likes to put it on the talent, but it was so much work. I hope those guys never undervalue what that work meant to this team or the leadership that went into it. We won the national championship but I think about all the hard days we put into it in practices and meetings and walk-throughs.”
Said Minnesota Vikings first-round safety Lewis Cine, a starter on the national title team: “I think Georgia has a great blueprint going forward. They had a great recruiting class. Kirby knows what it takes. He’s just going to do the same thing that led up to winning the natty.”