INGLEWOOD, Calif. — For so long, Georgia was the flagship program of the really good but not quite great. It produced a few decades of pretty nice seasons ending in pretty nice bowl games played by a lot of really good players dressed in red, white and black. But the Dawgs were always a few steps behind the sport’s elite.
They were always one play shy of beating Alabama. Always a few five-star recruits behind Florida. Always a few inches short when measured against the true ruling class of college football, even as the head of that class rolled through different eras and teams, from Miami and Nebraska to Southern California and seemingly every team in the SEC except for the one in Athens, Georgia.
But on a damp Monday night outside Los Angeles, the Georgia Bulldogs didn’t simply engrave their names onto the measuring stick by which all other college football programs are measured, they pulled that stick off the desk and beat the TCU Horned Frogs with it. Now, the conversation about Georgia football isn’t about what it hasn’t been able to do. It’s about what it might be able to do that few have ever done before: move past building championship seasons and move into building a championship era.
“I don’t know about that word, era; I’m not even sure what an era is,” Kirby Smart confessed as he headed from the confetti-covered SoFi Stadium field to the cigar-smoke-filled locker room after winning the College Football Playoff National Championship. “But I know what a great program looks like, a program that is built to last. I was part of four national championships as an assistant coach at Alabama. I know how hard it is to get to the peak of the sport, and I know it is even harder to stay there. I know what the foundation of that looks like. I think we are building that foundation. I hope we are.”
Consider it built. Concrete poured, cured and seemingly built to last.
UGA won its second national title in a row, only the fourth team to do so since 1990 and the first in the nine-year College Football Playoff era. It did it via a beatdown the likes of which hasn’t been seen in a college football title game of any format in 152 years of college football. Not the 1971 Orange Bowl (Nebraska 38, Alabama 6). Not the 1972 Rose Bowl (USC 42, Ohio State 17). Oklahoma 1985 (25-10 over Penn State). Nebraska 1995 (62-24 over Florida). USC in 2004 (55-19 over Oklahoma). Florida in 2006 (41-14 over Ohio State). Not even the previous standard-bearer for title game dominance: Alabama over Notre Dame 42-14 in the 2013 BCS championship. Miami in 2001, LSU in 2019, whatever comes up while thumbing through the record books … not a single one of those juggernaut teams or lopsided evenings on the gridiron comes close to approaching the 65-7 Bulldogs bulldozing that took place Monday night at SoFi Stadium.
It demoralized the upstart Horned Frogs and sent shivers into the souls of any team hoping to stand in TCU’s cleats anytime soon. It was the most lopsided postseason victory since bowl games made their debut in Pasadena, California, in 1902, capping a 17-game winning streak, the longest for Georgia since 1947. The Bulldogs’ 29 wins ties the mark for any major college team over a two-season span and is the most ever for an SEC school. Monday’s victory rewrote page after page of the college football history book.
“Georgia, obviously you’ve seen them in the past couple of seasons now, really, they’ve taken hold of college football.” That declaration was made by former Georgia All-American linebacker turned TV analyst David Pollack during ESPN’s halftime coverage of the game, when the score was 38-7.
He said it while sitting beside the network’s guest analyst for the evening, Alabama coach Nick Saban.
If it’s possible to say it, the game was even worse than the score. It was such a throttling that Georgia quarterback Stetson Bennett, shortly after tying LSU signal-caller Joe Burrow‘s CFP title game for points responsible for (36), was pulled from the game … with 13:25 remaining in the fourth quarter.
This is a team that lost 15 — yes, 15! — players to the 2022 NFL draft, five more than any other team, and simply reloaded. A defense that was supposed to take a step backward after a 2021 unit that was statistically speaking among the greatest of all time instead limited TCU — which came into the game averaging 474 yards and 41 points per game — to 188 yards and one solitary TD. A team that looked emotionally and physically exhausted after a New Year’s Eve thriller comeback win over Ohio State in the CFP semifinals responded by embarking on a week of practice that Bennett described in the days leading up to the title game as “a damn reconstruction project.”
“You attack every aspect of this as a challenge,” Bennett, 25, recalled of the week, quick to praise the UGA scout team that played the role of tough-as-railroad-spikes TCU quarterback Max Duggan. “Now I am done, but I think that those who are still here, and maybe those of us who are gone, have a responsibility to make sure this keeps rolling. Make sure you feel the pressure of keeping up what has been built.”
The comment showed shades of those all-time teams that Georgia once chased. The legendary Miami Hurricanes calling out from NFL locker rooms to those youngsters now in their beloved orange and green to ask what happened after a loss to a rival or one that ended a streak. Saban’s Alabama veterans showing up to spring practice to talk to their heirs about maintaining the principals of the process.
“That’s what we all have to guard against, complacency, and I am talking about coaches, players, even fans, never taking a night like this one for granted,” said Smart, who played defensive back on a lot of those good but never great Bulldogs teams of the 1990s. “You have to expect to be in these games and expect to win these games, but you can’t assume that it will happen. And I think that’s why trying to win a third straight championship will be an even steeper challenge than this one was. We lost so many guys last year and have so many more guys coming back next year. That’s more chances for complacency.”
It’s also more chances to benefit from experience, to lean on been there, done that. More than half of this season’s starters were redshirt sophomores or younger. They’ll be paired with what will be Georgia’s seventh consecutive top-three recruiting class.
Smart is only 47 years old. His former mentor, the guy sitting awkwardly next to Pollack, is 71. The GOAT was fully focused on what was in front of him. Saban always is. “I have hard time watching football because it’s always work,” Saban confessed the morning of the game. “How would we scheme against this? How are they accomplishing that? And in the case of what Kirby has done at Georgia, that is especially true. That’s the greatest compliment I can give any program, that everyone in our business has to watch everything you do.”
Yes, there are plenty of cautionary tales when it comes to college football dominion collapses. The transfer portal; name, image and likeness (NIL); an expanded playoff — the list of what has derailed the mighty and could do the same to Dawgs in the future is ever changing. All of those teams listed earlier, from Miami to Nebraska to USC, have fallen from “they can’t be beaten!” to “whatever happened to those guys?” It was just four winters ago when Clemson was playing in its fourth CFP title game in five years, and it has since slowly started sliding from the national conversation.
But even the players and coaches from those ruling-class programs, hailing from every spot along the timeline of college football history, likely spent their Monday night like the rest of us, watching the Georgia Bulldogs and wondering if what we witnessed against TCU might be a lot closer to the beginning of something big than it is to any conceivable end.
“I want to enjoy tonight, and I will,” said Georgia’s Brock Bowers, the All-American tight end who hauled in seven catches for 152 yards and a TD. He also is one of those sophomores. “But we go back to work as soon as we get home. There is always work to be done.”
That’s how it goes when you’re building an empire.