HOW BOUT THEM DAWGS!?!?
As spring practice comes to a close, we celebrate the 2021 National Champions, but also look at the future ahead from atop the college football mountain. The euphoria of January 10th will never fade, but the road there was not easy for the Bulldog Nation. This accomplishment is magnified by the 41 year drought for a football obsessed state and fan base. We look back at the long road to the pinnacle of college football and where do Kirby Smart and the Dawgs go from here.
The Georgia Bulldogs were kings of the game when they defeated the Fighting Irish to cap a magical 1980 campaign. With Herschel, Coach Dooley, Erk Russell and the Junkyard Dawgs, this program was destined for multiple titles. This didn’t occur in 1981 and hearts were broken by Todd Blackledge and Penn State in 1982. Nobody in their right mind would think the Dawgs would have to wait 20 years to even contend again. To make matters tougher to withstand, during this title drought, the Bulldog Nation witnessed rivals succeed and win national championships. Between 1981 and 2020, Alabama has won 7 national championships, Florida 3, LSU 3, Clemson 3, Tennessee 1, Auburn 1 and hated in state rival Georgia Tech even won a title. The regional landscape even heightened the pressure with FSU winning 3 and Miami winning 5. The questions continued to be asked, how could a football obsessed state and university allow this to occur?
Known Bulldog hater and Mouth of the South, Steve Spurrier notoriously said ”Why is it during recruiting season they sign all the great players, but when it comes time to play the game we have all the great players.? I don’t understand that. What happens to them?” This thought hung over the Dawgs for years. How does a program recruit and develop stars like Champ Bailey, Thomas Davis, Richard Seymour, Marcus Stroud, David Pollack, Matthew Stafford, AJ Green, the Stinchcomb brothers, multiple tight ends and a plethora of running backs not put together 1 year? I can’t imagine the pressure placed on all the players and coaches who were given the task of breaking the curse. Georgia has had so many close calls over the years, but for reasons unknown, they couldn’t breakthrough.
Coach Mark Richt had the Dogs back on the National landscape with their 2002 SEC Championship and Sugar Bowl title. Everyone thought it was just a matter of WHEN, not IF. The next 2 years the Dawgs came up short, but the 2005 squad had a feel to it. Undefeated heading to Jacksonville for the World’s Largest Cocktail Party and the struggling Gators. The only issue was that DJ Shockley was hurt the week before. The Dawgs lose the next 2, but upset LSU to win the league. These ups and downs lasted throughout Coach Richt’s tenure. A ton of very good teams and a ton of close calls. The pain for the Bulldog Nation was real, but nothing compared to the players and coaches in that locker room. Coach Richt got the Dawgs headed in the right direction on the field and the recruiting trail. The success he had, laid the foundation for the next Head Coach and former Dawg, Kirby Smart.
As soon as Coach Richt was relieved of the head coaching duties, there was only 1 option to take the Dawgs from good to great, insert Kirby Smart. Coach Smart was the starting safety for Georgia in the mid 90’s, so his desire to win was enhanced. His time learning under Coach Saban at LSU, the Dolphins and Alabama is well documented and that is exactly what was needed in Athens. His impact on the program started immediately, calling for 93K Between the Hedges for G-Day in 2016. The game was used to show his devotion to winning and to show recruits how special this fan base is. His second show of growth was the 13-7 upset of Auburn. The Dawgs ended the year with a Liberty Bowl victory over TCU. This prompted program legends Nick Chubb, Sony Michel, Lorenzo Carter and others to stay for the 2017 season.
The 2017 season started strong with a top 3 recruiting class. The momentum continued to escalate with a thrilling victory over Notre Dame. That propelled the Dawgs to run through the SEC East and skyrocket up the rankings. The dream seemed to be lost after a blow out loss on The Plains, but all it did was provide fuel in the SEC Championship game. The Dawgs won the SEC for the first time since 2005 and burst into the College Football Playoff. The Dawgs won a thrilling Rose Bowl over Oklahoma to earn their chance to play for a title. It seemed like destiny since the National Championship was being played in Atlanta. The only thing in their way was Alabama, who had deprived the Dawgs many times before. Georgia was a few plays away from hoisting the trophy, but that joy was stolen on the final play. The Dawgs saw recruiting success and high expectations the next 3 seasons, but still without a championship.
The 2021 season began like the previous 4, extremely high expectations and some chatter of a National Title. The defense was extraterrestrial all season long, but the questions focused on the quarterbacks and pass catchers. JT Daniels had his chance to showoff in the opener, but only the defense found the end zone in the win over Clemson. Daniels was dealt an injury, insert Stetson Bennett IV. The offense continued to grow as the year progressed, but the questions lingered, can this offense win in a shootout?
The Dawgs rolled to Atlanta to face the devil himself in Alabama. The game started out slow until Bryce Young and the Tide exploded in the 2nd quarter. This showing not only increased the questions about the offense, but led to speculation about the defense and if they were a product of a weak schedule. If this theme reminds you of 2017, you’re not crazy. The Dawgs got paired with the Michigan Wolverines in the Playoff Semi-Final. As soon as the ball was kicked, it was obvious to everyone who the superior team was.
Fast forward to Monday, January 10th. The site was Lucas Oil Stadium and the temperature outside was frigid. Coach Smart and the Dawgs looked across the field at a familiar foe; Alabama. The chatter the previous 10 days and you could even say the past 5 weeks was that Georgia isn’t tough enough to beat Saban and the Tide. As the game progressed, both defenses were playing at a high level. Then Bryce hit Jameson Williams for a big play, but unfortunately, that was his last play of the game.
The Dawgs hung around, but this time, they were the team scoring 3 touchdowns in the final 9 minutes. The go-ahead touchdown from The Mailman to Mitchell gave the Dawgs energy, the Bowers score strengthened the lead and the Ringo Pick Six brought euphoria! It was finally a reality, Georgia had exercised the demons and captured the National Championship. This monumental feat was not just for the 2021 squad, but for all the Dawgs that had come so close many years before. The sight of Kirby jumping during the Ringo interception was a microcosm of everyone wearing Red and Black. The fight song was played much louder and tears were in millions of people’s eyes. The burden on Mark Richt, Matthew Stafford, Aaron Murray, David Greene, Jake Fromm etc had been lifted.
Now that the confetti has fallen, trophy lifted and parade viewed, where do the Dawgs go from here? There will be a ton of Georgia players selected in the upcoming NFL Draft. The responsibility of defending the National Championships falls upon the coaching staff, returning players and another Top 3 recruiting class. The view from the top of the mountain is glorious, but the target is now firmly placed on the program. The 2022 defense has a tall task to match what the 21’ squad accomplished. Their depth will be tested, but all those heralded recruits down the depth chart last year have their chance to showcase their skills. On offense, the backfield has tremendous talent and the deepest tight end room in the nation. The offense will be relied on to carry the team while the defense gels.
Can this team accomplish a repeat, can they win multiple titles over the next 4-5 years, who knows? I do know that Kirby is a Saban disciple and if anyone knows how to produce sustained success and multiple titles, it’s him. A word to all of Bulldog Nation…let’s enjoy this championship, trust the staff to keep the guys focused this summer, keep touting the Red and Black and gear up to tailgate and Hunker Down in September!